Making Them Pay: Tales from the Immutable Stack

This is pretty much the entire text from the talk I delivered at Paymentsfn 2018 on May 24, 2018 in Durham, North Carolina.

Edgar Allen Poe - The Gold Bug

In his story The Mystery of Marie Rogêt, Edgar Allan Poe wrote

“Experience has shown, and a true philosophy will always show, that a vast, perhaps the larger, portion of truth arises from the seemingly irrelevant.”

And it is in that spirit that I lend another perspective, voice, and beating heart in the hope of unearthing some more truth around payment technology.

While it may seem like we in the tech world don’t share much with a 19th century poet, I’d like to tell you a story.

the-gold-bug-cover

In 1843, Edgar Allan Poe’s story The Gold Bug was published, which ended being the most popular and lucrative work he released during his lifetime.

Most of you have likely never heard of it. You’re probably familiar with The Raven or The Tell Tale Heart, but probably not The Gold Bug.

However, it was this story that won him a whopping $100 at the time ($100 being the equivalent of a little over $3000 today), which was the total winnings from a short story contest held by The Dollar Paper, a Philadelphia-based publication of the day.

Edgar Allan Poe was actually was one of the first American authors to actually attempt to make a living purely through writing and as the headline of this blogpost indicates, he wasn’t very good at it.

broke-freelancer
link to read

Unfortunately, Poe was the son of two actors. His father abandoned the family not long after Poe was born and his mother tragically died when he was just about a year old. An orphan, he was taken in by a wealthy merchant one John Allan who had young Edgar Poe baptized Edgar Allan Poe.

While a student at the University of Virginia, Poe repeatedly gambled away money meant for tuition and school supplies and eventually dropped out. This lead to him becoming estranged from his foster father Mr. Allan. Additional quarrels with Allan — who was rich and extremely adulterous— lead Poe to be disowned by Allan and excluded from the will.

So no trust fund. No parents or foster parents to fall back on. Poe had just a pen, a vivid imagination, and dogged persistence.

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So The Tell Tale Heart was published before The Gold Bug in January of 1943 and Poe was reportedly paid $10 for it.

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His poem The Raven published in 1845 came on the heels of The Gold Bug’s success. However Poe was paid only $9 for it.
It was The Gold-Bug that drew standing room-only crowds to Poe’s lectures and  gained him fans across the globe in places as France, Russia, and Japan.

In fact , he was actually paid twice for the story. First $52 by Graham’s Magazine a periodical for which he served as an editor but then he heard about the Dollar Paper’s contest and withdrew the piece from Graham’s — notably never returning that initial $52 to Mr. Graham, mind you.

I don’t begrudge you if you’ve never heard of The Gold Bug. To be honest, I’d never heard of it either before I sat down to write this talk. Having read it,  I can’t necessarily recommend as it is to— put it bluntly–kinda racist. Without excusing racism, I do think the kernel of this story and Poe’s story more generally is useful in illustrating a central point I’d like to make.

THE STORY

In The Gold-Bug, an unnamed narrator travels to meet with an old friend, one William Legrand, who lives on an island near Charleston, South Carolina. Legrand is sort of an eccentric prodigal son type who is full of endless fanciful sort of get rich quick schemes.

So when our narrator arrives, LeGrand and his companion, a freed yet still in servitude black man called Jupiter explain, that while wandering through the woods they came across a live beetle that they believe was somehow made of solid gold.

Our narrator listens politely to the story and then slowly heads back home to Charleston never actually laying eyes on this gold bug since Legrand had curiously lent it out to a friend.

A month later Jupiter comes to the door of our narrator and beckons him to return to the island. LeGrand who is now sweatier and wild eyed than ever informs him that as it turns out on this excursion where they’d come across the bug they also come across a scrap of paper connected to Spanish treasure hidden by one long dead pirate Captain Kidd. With that paper, LeGrand had been able to decipher the location back out in the woods where they’d be able to get their hands on the loot.

A month later Jupiter comes to the door of our narrator and beckons him to return to the island. LeGrand who is now sweatier and wild eyed than ever informs him that as it turns out on this excursion where they’d come across the bug they also come across a scrap of paper connected to Spanish treasure hidden by one long dead pirate called Captain Kidd.

With that paper, LeGrand had been able to decipher the location back out in the woods where they’d be able to get their hands on the loot.

LeGrand says to our narrator

“This bug is to make my fortune to reinstate me in my family possessions. Is it any wonder, then, that I prize it? Since Fortune has thought fit to bestow it upon me, I have only to use it properly and I shall arrive at the gold of which it is the index. ”

After some cajoling LeGrand convinces Jupiter and our narrator to head back out into the woods to a particular tree. From there the instructions are very specific, they have to tie the gold bug to a string, climb up the tree, dangle the gold bug on a string through first the right eye lobe then the left lobe of a skull nailed to a branch at the top of the tree. Then Jupiter — who is doing all the work here — is to drop the bug and X marks the spot where they have to dig.

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The narrator at this point relates a certain amount of doubt to us saying something we in the startup field likely all can relate to:

“Upon the whole, I was sadly vexed and puzzled, but, at length, I concluded to make a virtue of necessity –to dig with a good will, and thus the sooner to convince the visionary, by ocular demonstration, of the fallacy of the opinions he entertained.”

So after quite a bit of digging and shouting and napping and more digging they actually finally obtain the coveted treasure. When they’ve dragged it back to the shack, LeGrand explains to Jupiter and our dear narrator that he hadn’t been crazy after all that month. Instead it turns out he’d been wound up in an elaborate cypher which required quite a bit of code cracking and Sherlock Holmes style detective work.

In the end, Jupiter and our narrator are fascinated, and from what I could tell highly relieved that their friend had finally gotten he was looking for and would hopefully stop dragging them into the woods at night.

Now LeGrand with his righteous indignation about being due his fortune in life is surely just a thinly veiled version of Poe. And in some ways, Poe is himself not so different from us in the startup field.

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Much like Poe, founders have a vision and some positive indicators from the market and people seem enthusiastic about what they are doing. But how do they get the fortune they believe is their due?

In Poe’s day he wrote on spec and the hope that he might win a contest or a small contract that he could go collect on.These days, tech founders throw together a pitch deck and a website and then try to set up a simple system for people to add their credit card and pay them.

So I shared this story with you because I think Poe’s life and work offers a few key lessons for the modern startup.

ITERATION

The first lesson is around iteration….

Edgar-Allen-Poe-Artwork-edgar-allan-poe-7363811-386-500

Edgar Allan Poe is known as the father of modern horror and also the father of science fiction and also the father of cosmology and cryptography.

Nearly 600 words or phrases were coined by Poe. Some words we still use today, like bugaboo and finicky and multicolor.

This wasn’t simply because he was a creative and divinely inspired human being. He was scrambling for relevance and money. He was iterating and aiming to please.

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In 1839, four years before the publication of The Gold-Bug, Poe published an article in Alexander’s Weekly Messenger where he challenged the readers to send him coded messages to decipher. He received hundreds of messages so he knew the interest and audience was there for this kind of thing and that’s what lead him to write The Gold Bug.

Poe wanted what we all want which is to deliver to customers and be paid for it. He was an artist to be sure but he was intensely concerned about being an entertainer and reaching what today we might call Product Market Fit.

So as Vice President of Customer Success at Clubhouse Software, I help customers find their way around and begin to master our product and I also oversee our customer support team. Support is responsible for being responsive to those customers, and support is also the frontline for fielding any payments problems.

I don’t know how many of you are old enough to remember this but in the 80s there was a commercial for a brand of hair products called Vidal Sassoon. Their tagline is “if you don’t look good, we don’t look good”.

vidalsassoon

The idea there is that your appearance and success in using their products was a direct reflection on them, and this is true in all manner of customer facing work. regardless of how chaotic or seemingly in flux the company is, the role of success and support is to make the company and product look pulled together and sleek.

We want our customers not only to choose us but to feel encouraged by their choice, both in the product they receive and also in the ways they interact with our company. As such, no matter how the product may we change we need the user experience to feel consistent from initial marketing touch straight through to payment.

In a recent whiteboarding exercise, my colleague in customer success worked with one of our engineers to devise what would be the “ideal invoice”, working backwards from a list of customer complaints about our confusing existing invoice. This is frustrating.
The invoice should just work, so we can work on providing a great experience to the customer.

When we can’t decipher mysterious bank codes but the customer insists their form of payment is valid, we don’t look so good.When we struggle to make refunds or rerun invoices or when we have to read through convoluted logs to understand the how and why of a user’s billing history, we can start to lose customer confidence.

Our payment system needs to look good or else our product and our company start to look downright bad in the eyes of the customer.

INNOVATION

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The second area after iteration where I think Poe can shed some light is in the area of innovation.

Poe’s Gold Bug arrived on the scene at a challenging but exciting time in this country.

The American economy had just rebounded from the Panic of 1837 a five-year depression that many believe was caused by Andrew Jackson’s policies against the banks. At times during that depression, things got so bad that people were giving out this thing called a “Hard Times token” in lieu of pennies.

hardtimestoken Sojourner Truth’s “Aint I A Woman” speech commemorated

This is an abolitionist one. They came in many different themes.

But by 1843, the year The Gold Bug was published, a number of innovations made publishing cheaper and easier than it had ever been before.

These innovations include the first lithographic rotary printing press, a press in which the type is placed on a revolving cylinder instead of a flatbed. This sped up the printing process considerably and a form of it is still used today.

The inventor Charles William Siemens, of the same electronics company Siemens that exists day, had also helped to roll out anastatic printing, a process of printing using zinc plates that made copying of prints, designs, and literature faster and cheaper.

This is incidentally around the same time that Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage were pulling together their work on the Analytical Engine, largely considered to be an example of some of the earliest computer programming.

So lots of experimentation was going on. Electricity was in the air.

We are living in a similar period.

Innovations like the introduction of protocols, the decreasing price of microprocessors, and services like AWS enabled the rise of our current tech industry.

However as our poor unfortunate Mr. Poe discovered, there is quite a difference between riding a wave and being submerged by it.

While I’m not an engineer, in the beginning at Clubhouse we were a tiny team and I worked very closely with the engineers to set up and maintain the payments system.

And the process hit us rather hard.

Enabling payments was one of the biggest hurdles to clear before we could formally launch.

Like at many companies our engineers were hired for their competency in the skills necessary for building our product. While we have to build or integrate and also maintain a payment system, that is not our product. We build and maintain a payment system so we can get paid for building our product.

Now the payment system is integrated in the backend and our backend developers work with a functional programming language called Clojure and a database Datomic. For those unfamiliar, Datomic is a system that is immutable, which of course means that an entity holds on to values over time and as such you get a lot of fancy “time travel features”.

For billing and more importantly for understanding a customer, that is so valuable.

Knowing who did what and when at any given moment in the span of the customer journey is so valuable. For example, if someone was an active user and then left for a long stretch that is useful to be able to trace back actions to find out what may have lead to them abandoning the product. Being able to see the fullest picture of the past and the present is important to people who do any sort of account management. And if you are interested in this, there is also a really great talk called “Exploring Four Datomic Super Powers” that I encourage you to check out. There is a lot of great functionality there.

However, for us, leveraging Datomic to get that full picture meant that we had to take on a large share of the complexity of the payment system and set up our own trialling and payment logic. Something we weren’t terribly thrilled to do. Taking on this complexity also means that we have a hard time using the out of the box integrations with many analytics, metrics, and subscription management services.

Most of the integrations tend to only work properly with the vanilla implementation of payment processing not the sort of mixed up version we’ve implemented.

So at Clubhouse we are still very much in the process of trying to find a middle way where we can leverage the cool innovations of the day like Datomic without losing the great functionality of the payments software and— perhaps more importantly — the expertise of engineers who actually specialize in payments.

INTERNATIONALIZATION

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The third area where Poe’s life and work proves illuminating is internationalization.

As I mentioned before, Poe’s work particularly The Gold Bug and later The Raven gained him popularity not just in the US but in Europe and even Asia. In fact, the great French poet Charles Baudelaire spent some seventeen years translating the works of Poe, often putting his own writing aside to do so.

Unfortunately all of this international fanfare proved of little monetary value to Poe. In Poe’s day there were no international copyright treaties. The absence of such treaties meant two notable things:

1) Instead of paying American writers to produce new content, American publishers often simply copied the work of British writers and issued it from their presses. There was no author to pay so all the profits could be pocketed.

2) Poe had no real way of brokering to get compensated if and when his work was issued across the pond. Though his work undoubtedly circulated around the world, as an American whose work had not gone through whatever arduous registration processes England or France or wherever required, he had no standing in court to make a claim on his works or their translations.

While I consider myself a copyright minimalist, I do sympathize with Poe as he was faced with a significant obstacle to getting paid. As we know, the primary convention for payment on SaaS software like Clubhouse is a major credit card, but that simply doesn’t work for everyone who would like to use our software and we also know that much of the rest of the free world has wisely rid themselves of checks.

According to a 2012 World Bank report, “at least 110 money mobile systems have been deployed, with more than 40 million users”. Some six years later, I can imagine it may likely be double that number.

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When credit cards don’t work but mobile payment systems are on the rise, payment system purveyors should more easily enable tech companies to hook into the ways people around the world can and do pay for things.

When our products have avid fans all across the world, we need payment system providers us help us find more ways to let them pay.

THE EFFECT

To close, I want to share one last nugget of wisdom from dear old Edgar Allan Poe.

In a piece called “The Philosophy of Composition”, Poe explained why he wrote The Raven backwards saying:

“There is a radical error, I think, in the usual mode of constructing a story….I prefer commencing with the consideration of an effect.”

My ask is that payments system providers work with a consideration of the effect on customer success and support people like me, on engineers who are not payment specialists, and most importantly on our end user.

Help us iterate on our ideas while keeping the payment experience easy and constant for the user, help us leverage innovation without losing functionality, and enable us to cultivate an international user base that pays us in the ways that work for them.

And maybe, just maybe, we’ll all get a little closer to our fortunes.

Gratitude: September 2017

A few things I was grateful for this month:

1) Sydette Harry’s AffectConf Talk


Finally! A talk at a tech conference by a black woman about *us* and how *we* survive and what *we* need.

2) Orphan Black

Orphan_Black_S5_Poster (1)

I realized I was a season behind so I raced through season 4 and am just rounding the corner on the final season. This show is amazing and its star Tatiana Maslany is the shit. No spoilers please!

3) The CoLET website

This summer I co-founded CoLET: The Collective for Liberation, Ecology, and Technology. It’s a much-needed space for politically radical technologists. We finally got our website to a good place. I am excited to make a radical intervention in tech spaces and a tech intervention in radical spaces. Our time is SO now. Check it out when you get a moment!

4) Bookchin on Streetfighting with Nazis back in the day

I’m still on a Bookchin kick and someone in the social ecology community sent along this timely clip. Know your history, people!

5) Jazmine Sullivan’s piece on The Outline about chat as a lifeline for black women.

outline

The piece is beautifully written and I love all the fancy animations and interactive Javascript they did.

6) In Flames radio show on NTS Live

These two women have gotten me through many a tough day and given me my whole life with their groovy, funky, punky selections on this monthly independent radio show brought to us live from the streets of London. I love you, Ruby and Josephine!!

Some More Hands on Support

I am speaking about engineering – support collaboration this week at The Lead Developer conference. If the topic interests you and you wanna dig in further, here are a few handy links. US_Navy_030521-N-9109V-003_Sailors_and_embarked_Marines_flood_the_flight_deck_with_salt-water_solution,_scrub_brooms,_and_plenty_of_elbow_grease_in_a_mandatory_wash_down.jpg

(at Clubhouse) Eyes Wide Widened: My ‘Evolving View’ of Developers on Support

(at FullStory) How to avoid empathy fatigue on your support team

(at Big Cartel) Why All Hands Support Didn’t Work for Our Company

(at Statuspage.io) All-Hands Support: Why, No Exceptions, Everyone At Our Company Talks To Customers 

(at Wistia) All Hands Support

(at Automattic) 

 

 

Speak Up!

 UPDATE (24 March 2016)

I am no longer interested in giving talks on any of these topics or on anything related to tech diversity. For a list of topics, I would be interested in giving presentations on or (preferably) discussing a panel/roundtable session, see here.

—–

I just subscribed to the Technically Speaking mailing list  thinking I’d be helpful and keep an eye out for potential conferences to which our developers might want to submit abstracts/proposals. However, one item towards the bottom caught my interest enough to click. It was Chiu-Ki’s blog post from January 2012 where she resolved to be a public speaker. While I am not quite prepared to make such a resolution since I am still struggling with a tinge of imposter syndrome. I do think it might be helpful to at least outline some topics that I could talk about should I ever go out on a limb and try to speak on any regular basis.

Stuff I Could Talk About If I Wanted To Talk About Stuff

Free Culture and Open Licenses 
I did a highly educational and fulfilling stint at Question Copyyright where I was fully indoctrinated by a merry band of copyleft radicals. I actually did a lightning talk on the topic for a company gathering and (hey!) I even have a slidedeck. See below.

How To Contribute To Open Source When You Don’t Really Know How to Code

While I was lucky enough to have jumped into open source before  I realized it was supposed to be scary, I know a lot of people feel that while they are peripherally involved (via their companies or something else) that it isn’t really *for* them or that they don’t have anything to contribute. I actually have a whole blogpost on this topic and could add even more ideas to that old list.

Working With Remote Teams
I’ve worked as part of the Operations team for a very small but very geographically dispersed company for almost fours years. I think my concrete experiences and suggestions about this could be interesting to someone somewhere. No?

How Not to Contribute to Open Source 

Over the years I have witnessed and heard many horror stories about absolute fails in companies contributing to open source. I could share some worst practices and then also share some best practices and strategies for course correction.

Why Women Should Contribute to Open Source Even Though It Is Oftentimes Unpleasant 
I actually have a slidedeck for this one too since I gave this talk in 2013 at Write Speak Code to a lovely and receptive group of women.

Through The Looking Glass


I’m still with the same company, but we recently moved to a new office. Lots of great changes are afoot and this is the third office we’ve worked out of in the two years I’ve been there…and the third office in a row with no private rooms. The issue of privacy bugged me a bit before I had a kid, but now that I am a working and pumping mother it has become absolutely crucial. I need a clean, quiet, and wired (electrical and internet) place to pump for 20 minutes, two times a day. I can pump hands-free so whenever possible I’d like to be able to take my laptop with me and keep on Leaning In and shit. I’d like to know that I can sit somewhere, undisturbed and un-spied on for forty minutes a day. I can only imagine there are other people, pumping and non, who would like the same.

Transparency is good. Open doors and visible co-workers, that’s all great.  But sometimes we need privacy. Sometimes we need to have uncomfortable conversations, sometimes we need to hammer out the details of Top Secret Project X. Why do media/tech companies keep designing offices where that can’t (shouldn’t?) happen?

I recently heard this interview on CBC’s Radio Q with architect Raphael Sperry who’s organized other architects to stop designing solitary confinement cells in prisons. He says that architects have a social responsibility to uphold human rights. I agree with him wholly (in fact I think architects should stop designing prisons full stop!), and I’d argue that architects also have a responsibility to push for spaces that work for many different types of use cases, not just when 20-something year old dudes are programming together, drinking beer and getting along famously with no need for any privacy. I don’t know any companies where that is the case all day long, five days a week, do you?


If you have any thoughts, just ping me. I’ll be sitting on the bathroom floor pumping.


Related:

(WSJ) Indecent Exposure: The Downsides of Working in a Glass Office 
(BusinessWeek) Working Moms Need More Than Subsidized Breast Pumps 
(Yahoo Finance) A woman’s place is in the home and the office: The case for breastmilk pumping stations in public spaces 
(Why Is Her So Stroppy Blog) The silent breast pump and other lies by power mums