Monday, February 9, 2009

Polish Payroll

Over the course of running Spanning Sync for the past couple of years, there's a concept that's come up quite a lot. My business partner and I call it "Polish payroll", a phrase that originally came from Thomas Otter, a friend of mine who is now a Gartner analyst and was previously an HR specialist at the German software giant SAP.

Thomas first brought up the idea of "Polish payroll" in a discussion about startups challenging established vendors. It took SAP years and many product iterations to correctly implement the devilishly complex Polish payroll tax system in their software. Any startup wanting to successfully compete with SAP, regardless of how agile or nimble, would have to go through the same long, hard learning process. The difficulty and complexity of Polish payroll was a huge barrier to entry to SAP's market.

As Larry and I developed Spanning Sync, we ran into several hard problems. Some of them had to do with bugs in Google's API, others in Apple's. And that was in addition to the complexity inherent in synchronizing lots of frequently-updated data between unreliable machines over an unreliable network. At times it was discouraging. But every time we encountered one of these hard problems we solved it and then smiled and said to each other, "Polish payroll," meaning that if anyone wanted to successfully compete with us they'd had to solve the same hard problem too.

Last night it occurred to me that Polish payroll also applies to school. The SI review session for the midterm was confusing and, in my opinion, probably did more harm than good. Several of the problems in the problem set had errors in them that made finding a correct answer impossible. Others were so vague that they had multiple correct answers, but the session leader insisted that only one answer would be considered correct. Many people left the session with a diminished understanding of the material. And since the class is graded on a curve (of sorts) those people are my competitors for an A.

I was able to work around the errors in the problem set and the confusion in the session. To successfully compete for an A, the other people in my class with have to do the same. Polish payroll.

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