The Summer of Silence

This is the fifth of several posts where I am revisiting CommonsWare, my long-time business and current “hobby with a logo”. I thought it might be useful to some to see how all that came about, the decisions I made, and so on.

The series:

To recap: in early 2008, I realized that Android was the best option for me to dive deeply into smartphones, rather than iPhone. And I thought that a business model based around frequently-updated books on rapidly-moving technology might work.

So, I started writing. I spent evenings and weekends coming to grips with the nascent Android SDK, writing book chapters and sample apps along the way.

I also started contributing on the two Google Groups that Google had set up for Android app development support. I knew that “word of mouth” was going to be key for my success, so I wanted to start early. However, in April and May of 2008, I was definitely helping more on the fringes — most of the attention in those groups were on the Google engineers working on Android. Legends like Dianne Hackborn were active in the groups, guiding us in understanding thorny questions like “WTF is a Context?” and “why does my activity get screwy after I rotate from portrait to landscape?”. There were perhaps a dozen key Google contributors on those groups, and we relied on them fairly heavily.

And then in late May, the Google contingent stopped posting on those groups.

There was no “goodbye”, or “hey, we need to focus on other things for a while”, or any other sort of announcement. One day, they were just gone. Eventually, we heard via “the grapevine” that top management (presumably Andy Rubin) had screamed fairly loudly about Googlers being involved with the community, particularly with deadlines looming. That seems plausible (both the justification and the screaming), though I never attempted to get corroboration for that story.

The reverberations from that lingered for years, as it seemed as though Google engineers were prevented from even acknowledging that the community existed. I distinctly remember an early Google I|O conference session, where Romain Guy was struggling not to say “ActionBarSherlock” when trying to answer a question about ActionBarSherlock, Jake Wharton’s legendary early UI framework. It was quite some time before whatever sort of “gag order” they were under seemed to lapse, and longer still before Android got a solid developer relations team.

But, in May 2008, the net was that the vast majority of our Android developer support system vanished without a trace. It was just a few of us independents left to help others, especially those like myself and Reto Meier, who were working on Android app development books. I re-doubled my support efforts, to try to fill the gap. And, weeks after the summer of silence began, I released the initial edition of The Busy Coder’s Guide to Android Development.

The combination of the book and the support posts on the Google Groups started to establish my reputation as being a leading expert on Android app development.

This is where “you make your own luck” starts to come in. I did the work to identify a business model. I did the work to identify an area to apply the business model towards. I did all kinds of work to execute on that business model, starting with writing a book very quickly and supporting the pre-hardware Android developer crowd. That set me up to capitalize on the “knowledge gap” that arose when the Google engineers left the Google Groups. I did not create that gap — some Google executive did — but I was in position to fill it. The phrase really should be “you work to put yourself in a place to leverage luck when it arises”, but that’s a bit wordy.

Those Google Groups have long been “resigned to the dustbin of history”, and even old-timers like myself rarely think about them. I wound up being better known for answering support questions somewhere else… and I will talk more about that “somewhere else” in the next post in this series.