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.

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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.

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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….

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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”.

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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

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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.

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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!!

My SupConf NYC Experience – Part II

You can read Part I of my SupConf NYC experience here
………….

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So after months of preparation and practice, SupConf arrived!  The day before the conference, we had a speakers and organizers dinner at the venue so we could familiarize ourselves with the space and also get to know each other. Aside from getting to meet so many of the fantastic people I chat and joke with on the Slack, the highlight of that night was insanely delicious cheesecake in a jar. I’d never had that before! It was dangerous! Stuffed and excited I headed home to rest up so I could come back energized fo the conference the next day.

——-

Day 1 of SupConf was a whirlwind of socializing and listening to wonderful talks. Every one had harrowing tales to tell and sage lessons to share.

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I loved Lance’s talk. We all need this skill in our back pocket.

Some of the people I admire most in the support field were in the room and it was hard not to vibrate from enthusiasm and sheer smitten-ness (is that a word?) as they spoke. I’d actually told Scott, the organizer/founder of Support Driven, a few weeks before that, “There will be so many people that I admire in that room, I wish I had some sort of SupConf yearbook, so I could go around and ask my favorite people to sign it!” And so it was!

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After the first few talks, the organizers came around and passed out the SupConf mini-yearbooks. They featured headshots of every attendee, their name, company, and Slack handle. It was so cool and also exceedingly handy since they didn’t do nametags or lanyards. It also included a headshot page of every speaker alongside a blank page where you could note Key Takeaways for their talk. More conferences should seriously consider doing this!

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Breakout session after Laura Marciano’s excellent talk on troubleshooting your  team

 

A slightly racy “GIF battle” (Support Driven folks LOVE their GIFs) officially closed out a full day of talks and discussion, after which I wandered off to take a little time to myself (and get an impromptu manicure).  That evening, one of the conference sponsors hosted a smaller group of us for lovely drinks and dinner. This was a good opportunity to get to know more folks and also calm my nerves a bit before Day 2, when I had to give my own talk. Shout out to Caitlin and Carin, my new support pals in Bozeman, Montana (the Brooklyn of the Northern Rockies!) and Rex (my UK-based Ghanaian brother from another mother) who gave me a big boost of confidence ahead of my talk. I left that night knowing that when I spoke the next day, I would be amongst friends.

 ——-

On Day 2,  I got up early and dressed in the way Lara Hogan prescribes when she says (in Demystifying Public Speaking)

 “Wear whatever makes you feel like a super hero.” 

I was a ball of nerves as I dropped my kid off to school and then rushed over to the venue. I avoided any coffee fearing it would make me too jittery, and I did my best to engage with the other attendees and the other talks. However, as time grew nearer I could feel my stomach knotting up, so I went off into a quiet corner and listened to one of my favorite songs (Akosua by Georgia Anne Muldrow and then did a quick guided meditation). I wasn’t speaking until a bit after lunch and I considered skipping eating so I wouldn’t have anything weird in my teeth, but I couldn’t hold out and ending up grabbing a small bite and rushing up front so that the day’s MC (shout out to the amazing Michelle Bearheart from Trello! ) could get me wired up for the mic. I had to go to the bathroom to clip the lav mic pack up under my dress and on to the waist of my tights. I knew this was going to be the deal, but

I was committed to dressing like my own version of a superhero. And that superhero wore a dress, not a skirt or pants.

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That’s me there talking to my seatmates during another breakout session. Wearing red makes it easy to spot yourself in pics later on.

After sitting on the side of the screen through Emily’s great talk on setting career goals, I quickly reached into my dress and clicked the mic pack on. Unfortunately that was a few beats to early and shrieking feedback echo’d throughout the room. I clicked it back off for a second while Michelle announced me and then clicked it back on and walked up to the front. It turns out it was *still* too early to have it on and the first few beats of my talk were feedbacky and weird. I rolled with it and continued on.

I had great time up there, spotting faces I recognized in the crowd, hearing people laugh at funny bits, and watching nods of understanding and agreement.

At one point, I felt my throat dry up and  realized I had no water but I powered through it, mentally noting that I should have that next time (or ask the organizer to provide it/remind me). At another point, I  forgot my next point and had to grab my notes, but even then I felt like everyone was with me cheering me on. When I was done, I got great applause and lots of enthusiastic feedback and tons of high-fives (which I normally hate but relished on that occasion).

Watching the talk now I see where I can improve in the future, but I am genuinely proud of myself.

I think I am an engaging new speaker, and I will definitely grow and improve over time. I thank all the organizers of Support Driven for this incredible opportunity, and I am excited for my future speaking engagements as well as the growth and ongoing success of the truly nurturing SupConf community.

And without further ado, here’s the talk!

SupConf NYC 2016 – Camille Acey Where To Next? Evaluating Opportunities For Growth-HD from Camille Acey on Vimeo.

My SupConf Experience – Part I

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I joined the Support Driven community last year after searching around for groups and newsletters catering to people working in tech support. In the time since I initially signed up, the amazing newsletter and Slack group have come to be an invaluable part of my life and professional development. When I am confused or need a guidance I drop a note in to my peers, who are ever at the ready to answer questions. When I am frustrated, they commiserate with me and drop in appropriately empathetic emojis and GIFS. When I have a big win, they whoop and drop celebratory GIFS.

So last year, when  founder/community manager Scott Tran and his team announced that they were pulling together a new Support Driven conference to be called SupConf, I bravely put together my first ever conference CFP and shipped it off. While I was unfortunately not selected and was ultimately unable to attend, my proposal got me seriously thinking about starting to try and speak at conferences, and after I saw the pictures and read the Slack chatter post-SupConf SF I was resolved to make it to the next one. I think I remarked in the Slack chat that if felt like every one had gone to band camp but me.

So when it was announced that the next SupConf was to be right here in NYC, I got back on the horse, pulled together some better proposals (with the help of some amazing women in tech!) and resubmitted……This time I got in!

While I was beyond excited to get the acceptance email. I was also a bit nervous. This was going to be a room full of hundreds of my peers — people I admired and looked up to. People I really liked in the virtual space and was hoping to connect with IRL.  What could I say? How could I remember it all? And most importantly, how could I avoid being boring or outright embarrassing?

Luckily, Scott and the rest of Support Driven team were already on the case. They had pulled together a speaker development program that set out clear deadlines and concrete requirements, and they gave every speaker an experienced mentor who would hold their hand through the process. I was partnered with the wonderful Pat East (now of GitHub) who was a constant source of encouragement, challenging questions, and (of course) support. I was also able to draw on the expertise of people in the community like Automattic Happiness Engineer Andrew Spittle as well as public speaking expert (and Andrew’s fellow Automattician) Luca Sartoni. My fellow SupConf NYC speakers also shared numerous helpful talks, blogposts, and book titles.

I ended up spending hours upon hours learning as much as I could about the art and science of public speaking (see my resource list at the end of this post), as well as practicing every chance I got. As I went along I began to be so grateful to have been selected to speak not only because I was able to begin to develop myself as a public speaker but also because this time-boxed assignment gave me an opportunity to think and write (and corner unwitting friends and family into conversations) about the topic I’d chosen: responsible time management. I’d long wanted to write a blog post about this topic (as a follow-up to my blogpost on how to quit) and now here I was writing a talk! And being so richly assisted in the process!

So how’d it turn out? Well, in the next post, I am going to tell you about the conference and the actual speaking experience, but for now, here is my list of helpful new speaker resources:

Blogposts/series

Books

Conference Talks/Videos

Talk the Talk

This year I’m making a greater effort to try and speak at conferences. It appears to me that it is one of the popular paths towards tech stardom (for better or worse).

Here are topics that I am (currently) interested in talking about in a conference format:

– Graceful Exits (see blogpost on this topic here)
– Customer Success and Product Feedback (recent posts here and here)
– Coop Building and Tech Challenges (I’m planning on pulling together a blogpost or a talk proposal about the housing and food coops I’ve been involved with over the past near 20 years and the messy story of building, maintaining, and phasing out homebrewed software. Contact me if you’ve got a horror story!)

I’m also open to other suggestions. That said, I am NOT interested in talking publicly about being black or female in tech. I am not interested in talking about diversity in tech at all.

I will continue to submit to CFPs and we’ll see where this goes.  Thanks!