Life Apps, Life Infrastructure
It’s 9pm and you have 2 hours of free time before you go to sleep. What will you do?
There are 100+ items on your personal to-do list. What will you do today?
Your 3-month sabbatical is starting tomorrow. What will you do?
There’s a model I’ve repeatedly found useful when choosing what to focus on: dividing life between “apps” and “infrastructure.”
In software companies, broadly speaking, apps are the product you sell to customers. Building apps is the goal of the overall effort. On the other hand, infrastructure is the pipes and rails you need behind the scenes to create apps. Apps are on the homepage, but infrastructure is invisible.Infrastructure is a hassle, often messy, and seen as a necessary evil.
And yet I would estimate that companies spend easily 40-60% of their effort on building and rebuilding infrastructure. Does that sound like a lot? In cloud software, an app needs a staggering amount of support. There are frameworks for developing apps that need to be maintained. There are frameworks for testing, deploying, and running apps, for analyzing logs, for runtime monitoring, for analytics, billing, security, and on and on.
A company that develops just one end-user application needs most of these infrastructure elements. When the product line if made of dozens of apps, the complexity can be staggering. And there’s always work to do on the plumbing. Ask an engineering team what the priority should be next year, and they’ll probably say, “rewrite the code and automate XYZ.” In other words, maintenance, service, infrastructure. No wonder cloud companies talk about product drag. Focus too much on new features, and the app becomes unstable. Development slows down because code gets and messy with emergency patching, and manual hand-holding ties up engineers. But focus too much on infrastructure and the product gets stale.
Back to life decisions. You can think of “apps” as the things people want to do with their life:
Having a family
Building a company
Taking a cooking workshop
Writing a book
And infrastructure is what people do because it’s necessary for the apps to work:
Taking care of one’s health
Finding a babysitter
There are many layers to this, if you want to look deeper. In the “app” of a relationship, for example, there are smaller apps (dinner dates, sex, weekend getaways), and there is infrastructure work (learning empathy, processing challenging emotions, opening up to vulnerability).
We could end the post here and have a simple metaphor. Apps are fun and infrastructure is boring. But I’m actually writing this in praise of infrastructure. It is vital for growth. Building infrastructure is about creating the form (structure) that supports more energy.
In fact, people can build up infrastructure debt just like companies. When people take a sabbatical, they usually focus their time on apps. But it wouldn’t be unreasonable to take an infrastructure sabbatical every few years—renovate the house and the body, fix what’s broken, upgrade skills, prepare financial structures, build habits, and so on.
So how can we reconcile these two aspects of infrastructure—importance and boredom? Let’s dig deeper, and things will get interesting.
This is what infrastructure can look like:
Having a family. The constant effort that Emily’s family needs from her feels like a second job. Her apps are the minutes of fun with kids each day. Her infrastructure is the hours of family support.
Building a company. Troy dreams of being a writer. But that won’t support him. He has a small business that pays the bills, but his app is the writing he does at 9pm.
Taking a cooking workshop. Oscar doesn’t enjoy cooking, but he wants his kids to be healthy. So he starts learning how to nurture them with food. To progress faster, he takes online cooking classes.
Writing a book. Jennifer loves public speaking. But to get gigs, she needs to build a reputation. So she’s writing a book on the changing nature of her industry. Writing has always been a pain, and this feels endless. She can’t wait to finally have that final draft behind her.
Travel. Julia is a business consultant. She loves working with clients around the world, and the money is great. But she spends four nights a week in a hotel away from her family. After six years of this, she’s wondering if it’s really worth it.
Doing yoga. Michael is nearly seventy. He loves walks on the beach and wants to stay healthy for a few more decades. To keep his body in shape, he does yoga every morning.
What some consider an app, others see as infrastructure, and vice versa. One can do away with boredom with a simple shift of perspective: finding the app in the infrastructure. Let’s take something like cleaning, shall we? Have you tried dancing your way through the cleanup? Or meditating? Especially if dancing and meditating are your apps? At some point, I spent my cleaning sessions working out the fastest way to clean up and got to 2-3x my original speed. (I might write a post about that!) Cleaning became an opportunity to think about complexity (and that’s an app for me). Similarly, driving kids to clubs can become time to connect (app). And how about going to the gym? Reading? Seeing friends? Are they apps or infrastructure?
As I was finishing Flock Without Birds, I faced the daunting task of finding a publisher. For me, then, writing was the app. Getting it published was infrastructure. I had to decide if this infrastructure would be outsourced (by getting a publisher) or built in-house (self-publishing). But getting a publisher requires a lot of infrastructure work too, and I preferred the “infra work” of self-publishing to the “infra work” of finding a publisher. Being able to control the whole production and promotion was actually quite close to an app for me.
Still, after this high-level decision, the dilemma kept reappearing on a smaller scale. Should I use Amazon or build my own eshop? Should I buy (a service) or build? Derek Sivers builds his own eshop and writes the code. That gives him control over such details as different language editions, being able to offer pdfs and other formats, and more. Is the tradeoff worth it? That depends a lot on whether you can turn building your own eshop into a life app. It seems to me that’s what Derek does. I went all-in on it too: I launched my own publishing company, my own webstore, I built distribution in the US and the UK, and I brought my novel to the market. If it didn’t feel to a large extent like self-realization and not a chore, I don’t think it would have worked well. So originally, my app was writing, but it brought me to another entertaining app—online world-building.
Your 3-month sabbatical is starting tomorrow. What will you do?
There are certainly companies whose product is of an infrastructural nature. AWS, for example. But even these companies have products that they sell and internal infrastructure that supports those products.
Super insightful, great topics – always a pleasure reading 10-Year Horizon! I read Flock Without Birds couple of years ago and definitely plan on re-reading it at some point.
Having just retired from being in-house legal counsel for a company that writes and markets accounting and engineering software for utility companies, I recognize the dynamic and appreciate the re-visioning of it in personal life. Makes great sense. Thanks