David Heinemeier Hansson

February 10, 2023

Invest in things that don't change

You know you're old when you can talk about stuff that happened twenty years ago with vivid recollection. I'm now that old. This week, it's been 19 years(!!) since we first launched Basecamp. Which means it's been well over twenty years that I've been working with Jason Fried at 37signals, and also more than twenty years since I first picked up the Ruby programming language.

Having worked on both endeavors ever since has given me a potent inoculation against the mistaken notion that TECHNOLOGY CHANGES ALL THE TIME, YOU CAN'T KEEP UP. No it doesn't. There are paradigm shifts, like the introduction of mainstream mobile computing with the iPhone, or the internet before that, and perhaps now the advent of serious AI, but these shifts are rare. Most of the time, it's incremental improvement on enduring ideas.

All the energy I've invested into learning Ruby, SQL, HTTP, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, Linux, and the other mainstays of web development, continues to propel my work to this day. Yes, the versions have changed, the specs have grown more complicated, and most of the fundamentals have gotten slowly better. But it's completely recognizable from twenty years ago.

Watch the original 15-minute demo of Ruby on Rails from 2005, and, if you've ever done any Rails programming, you'll find the shape of things very familiar. Even if you haven't done any Rails programming, you can watch the Rails 7 demo from 2021, and the likeness is self-evident.

That's not the impression most people get from following the coverage of technology. Partly because there's of course nothing interesting about "yep, in this sector of commercial development, things have been pretty much stable for two decades!", and a lots of interesting angles on "AI is coming for us all!!".

Now I'm as smitten and excited about AI – and AR and VR and a bunch of other promising tech! – as the rest of the marveling public. I'm just zooming out a bit here. Most people working in technology today do so with tools and techniques that have been stable for twenty years or more.

Ruby is originally from 1993. Linux from 1991. MySQL from 1995. That's all the core building blocks of what I still work with, and all those technologies are pushing on thirty years now. Using ideas that at the time were already a decade or older!

Perhaps the best piece of advice I ever got from Jeff Bezos was this: Invest in things that don't change. His example was that customers won't wake up one day and wish shipping was slower or the selection of goods poorer. So investing in logistics and warehousing was investing in things that don't change, and will continue to pay dividends for decades.

I've been investing in things that don't change for two decades. We've been doing the same at 37signals. It's rarely spectacular in the first moment, or the next, but the magic of compound interest applies to skills as well as to investments. If you can keep your cool, and not thrash about reacting to every dip or peak, you usually make out pretty well in the end.

About David Heinemeier Hansson

Made Basecamp and HEY for the underdogs as co-owner and CTO of 37signals. Created Ruby on Rails. Wrote REWORK, It Doesn't Have to Be Crazy at Work, and REMOTE. Won at Le Mans as a racing driver. Fought the big tech monopolies as an antitrust advocate. Invested in Danish startups.