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February 26, 2019 · 12 min read

Startup life, stability, payroll, and change with Mong Truong of Primitive Logic

There’s a difference between working for a startup, founding a startup, working freelance, and working as a consultant for a company on payroll. It all comes down to the risk profile you are willing and able to tolerate, and that is itself a function of the stage of life you’re in and other variables. In this episode I sit down with Mong Truong who has worn all of those hats. We talk about the differences, and his current role consulting for large corporate clients as Technical Director of Primitive Logic where he tackles large projects, legacy code, and change management, just to name a few.

Mong Truong

Director of Primitive Logic

Mong Truong grew up in The Netherlands where he co-founded multiple startups, but eventually landed in the US where he is currently a Technical Director at the business and IT consulting firm, Primitive Logic.

When not spending time with his family, he enjoys tinkering with both software and hardware.

Read transcript

Ledge: Hi, Mong! Welcome! This is the Frontier Podcast. It’s really good to have you here. Why don’t you give a quick intro of yourself and some of your expertise.

Mong: Thanks, Ledge! Thanks for having me. My name is Mong Truong. I am a consultant for a small consulting firm called “Primitive Logic.” They’re based out of San Francisco. Before that, I co-founded the company Diginext and we had been on that adventure for about ten years. After that, it was the end of a nice adventure and I moved on to a more stable line of work and that’s how I ended up with this consulting firm.

Ledge: I imagine that dealing on the consulting and client side is going to be a different kind of adventure than dealing with sort of the start-up and growth side.

So what’s the difference there? I think a lot of professionals deal with that kind of “Hey, should I go back on payroll or should I stay as a freelancer or should I work at a fast-growing startup or should I do something where I get to work at larger companies? What was that decision-making process like for you?

Mong: It depends on the person. It’s very much up to the personality. I’m not saying I wouldn’t mind working for a startup again but there’s a difference between working for a startup and actually founding a startup. There’s a lot of stress that goes along with that. For example, you would actually be responsible, if you have employees, for their paychecks; and you need to make sure that they keep getting their paycheck while you focus on improving your product and getting clients and all of that kind of stuff.

Whereas if you become a consultant, you work for a large firm, they have their sales people and you just make sure that you come in; you do the right thing; the client loves you; you get staff on different projects.

With a freelancer, I think it’s a little bit in between where you do sort of a consulting gig but you’re more responsible in terms of finding the next projects that you’ll be working on.

Ledge: For myself, it was a stage-of-life thing, too. What was exciting for me being the startup CEO founder ten to fifteen years ago is different depending on the stage of life that I’m in.

Mong: Absolutely!

Ledge: And stability of income is always a thing to think about. I was blessed in my own journey to be able to do a bunch of startups and make enough income to support the family. But, sometimes, you think you’re interested maybe in your craft and delivering your thing more than in building the vehicle through which other people can deliver.

I don’t know if that resonates with you but that was part of my experience.

Mong: The main driving force, at least, for me was the ability to work on something that you love and create and to have a voice in that. You can steer the direction of where things are going.

But, most importantly, just have fun.

At a company, unfortunately, you’re going to have to do what you’re being told to do whereas if you found your own company, you just decide what you want to do, what you want to work on, and what the project is. The latest technologies are out there. Just go ahead and experiment.

Because of that passion and that drive that you would have, we put in a lot of hours back then ─ crazy, crazy hours. We spent sleepless nights. And I have to say, back then when I was younger, that was more doable. Now, with a family and with a kid, it gets more difficult to do that. So that plays a role as well.

Ledge: Sure. What kind of work are you doing in that consulting space? Larger companies are probably on the bleeding edge of technology; and yet, they need to use the learnings from the startup with fast-growing spaces or maybe they’re not adopting something that’s been in Open Source for six months but maybe something that’s been in two years and it’s stable: containerization; CI/CD; Docker. I imagine that you’re seeing stuff like that out in the field.

What does it look like when slightly more technologies are being brought in to really legacy environments?

Mong: You’re right. It’s difficult because we have conservative clients who aren’t familiar with or even comfortable with more of the bleeding edge technologies and they’re very hesitant to change. They have stable environments. They like to keep it stable.

And what is most important for them is support because what if you moved to this bleeding edge, open source technology that was launched only six months ago? Who do you go to if something doesn’t work, if something breaks? Where do you get your support?

It’s a difficult pitch here. But there are plenty of open source technologies that have actually been out there for some time that have proven themselves; and those are the technologies that we have, an easier task of easing that into the existing workflow.

Ledge: What’s the talent situation for a more conservative company that probably has a workforce already and certainly is hiring consultants to bring some kind of new thinking to the table and that’s why you use a consultant and you need people who can bring in some best practices?

You probably already have an established workforce. You need to train them up. Maybe there’s some resistance from the workforce to adopt new technologies.

I guess, it’s really a change management kind of disposition when you go into a new more conservative client.

Mong: It is. And it is difficult. That’s why for change management itself, different roles are available; that is, one person can be involved completely with the change management without ever being involved in the technical side of the project.

But the resistance that you’re talking about, I think every consultant out there will encounter that because ─ you’re right ─ the established workforce will view you as sort of the enemy. You’re coming in. You’re going to show them how it’s done or you might take away their baby that they’ve been working on for so long.

You just need to find a way to resonate with them. Make them part of the process. Don’t work against them. Involve them. Make sure that they can own the improvement. Make them feel like they’re part of the new idea, the new change and that they are driving force behind that.

You’re just planting seeds. You’re not saying, “Hey, this is the direction we should go.” It’s more of a “Hey, there’s this new technology that I think might work in our situation. Have you taken a look?”

And once you plant that seed and they like it, they might run with it and you can support them in implementing that; and the end result is that you have a better workflow for everybody, a more efficient way of working and successful projects. That’s all that we want, right?

Ledge: So what did you bring from the startup space? You had a bunch of years running your own company starting from the ground up. What kind of innovative disciplines are useful in a more conservative consulting kind of context?

I imagine that’s probably pretty valuable and yes, of course, you need to deal with the slowing down and the adoption curve and those things. What’s useful and what’s different between someone who has worked in founding and growing a startup and folks who maybe have not done that and have always been in the bigger company spectrum?

Mong: I think the most important thing is that you’re going for it all in. I’ve heard of a bunch of folks who tried to do a business on the side; and most of that, usually, don’t pan out.

I think the main reason is that you’re not giving two hundred percent. In order to make your business successful, it will need all of your attention. You can’t do something on the side and expect ─ you can always hope but it’s hard to expect that something you’re not giving the full attention that it needs grows out to be something successful.

What I’ve learned or taken away from the startup period is that, in the beginning, we didn’t have employees so as founders, you have to wear multiple hats. You need to learn. You need to dig into stuff. You need to make things happen regardless of what the task at hand is.

So I have had to learn a lot of different technologies out there that I had never experienced before. Even a Google search would not yield the right result so what you end up doing is you’re going to have to experiment and try things out. There was a lot of trial and error in that sense.

But as long as you have that passion and that drive, you will get to where you need to be, and that is how, I think, most of the open source technologies are actually born.

With Docker, someone had a problem that needed to be solved; and they solved it. A bunch of folks were determined to fix that problem that they saw and they came up with a great solution. Now, if you look at Docker in the market, it’s being used pretty much everywhere.

Ledge: And how do you explain to maybe a legacy kind of company or a more conservative company that’s doing great? Let’s face it, they don’t hire consultants like you and your company to come in work on something that isn’t there and that isn’t already making, by all accounts, a lot of money. Yet, there’s probably some leadership here on the side of ─ everybody reads the stories about disruption and “Hey, there’s a scrappy startup trying to eat your lunch somewhere.” So how do those conversations go on the other side?

I think it’s easy for us who have been on the startup side to kind of think, hey, we’re going to get the big battled company that doesn’t know how to do this.

What does the other side of that conversation look like?

Mong: You’re right. At a more conservative company, it’s very hard to say, “Hey, everything that you have, your entire infrastructure, there’s scrap all that and let’s move to Docker. Let’s containerize everything. Let’s switch over to microservices. Let’s do away with the legacy systems.”

And that just doesn’t work. I have yet to see any salesperson who is able to pull that off. That would be pretty impressive.

It’s a gradual approach for us. We’re not here to get them on the bleeding edge; that’s not our goal. Our goal is to help them solve any problems or issues that they are currently encountering with their current system. And, usually, that’s not with the entire system. It’s with certain parts of the system and we should focus on that.

While we are improving that part of the system that they’re having an issue with, nothing stops us from improving the process while doing so.

For example, when we’re brought in to build an additional feature, as part of that, we also assess the development cycle in the old legacy systems where you just have your central repository of code and you have your one humongous Makefile that builds everything. Nothing is automated.

We can improve that. So as part of the project, we also introduce certain technologies that we are aware of that are currently out there that will improve their current process. You will help their team to be more efficient, to be more productive, and to make things easier.

So, for example, the CI/CD stack, Continuous Integration and Continuous Deployment, that is something that helped this client tremendously. So instead of the old way of doing things, we’ve introduced a new source control system. They were on a very old legacy one before that.

We introduced Git which is the largest, the most used source control system out there at this point in time. We also introduced Jenkins that automatically creates a bill as soon as someone checks in their code. It wraps everything into what they need and it can deploy to their servers.

We introduced that as part of an ongoing project. It wasn’t when we came that we said, “Hey, you need to use this.” It’s just that while we were there.

While we were working on a project, it was like, “Hey, this process can be improved. This is one of the ways that we can improve it. What do you, guys, think?”

Ledge: Being now in an environment like that that moves slower, that isn’t bleeding edge, what do you wish that the open source sort of more hacker community could do better?

People are out there contributing to open source products and, eventually, those products trickle into enterprise and legacy. What could the community do better to support what really is a vastly larger market segment?

Everybody gets excited about startups and fast-growing companies in Silicon Valley. Yet, an overwhelming amount of business is legacy technology platform that might benefit from these things.

What do you wish was there from the supporting community that maybe isn’t built for that legacy customer?

Mong: Most of the open source projects that have gone the enterprise route already know what they need to do. The single biggest thing out there that I see the need for is support. Most of the open source projects out there that have gone the enterprise route where they target large enterprises actually offer support.

If you’re just an open source project that is awesome at what it does and you keep it up to date like you have your commits every day and stable build every month, it’s great and all. But an enterprise isn’t looking to upgrade their stack every month just to keep up especially if they use multiple open source projects out there.

They have a very controlled and slower timeline. So they might be looking at once or twice a year where they perform major upgrades. And in order to support that, your project needs to introduce things like the support life cycle where you have a stable long-term supported version of your products, for example, and a bleeding edge one.

That’s how you’ll make a chance in the enterprise market.

Ledge: That’s fantastic insight. Thank you very much. Excellent! Any closing statements or philosophical interest you want to impart to the listeners before we go?

Mong: I’d say that if you want something, just do it.

Ledge: Fantastic! Mong, thank you. This has been a lot of fun. We will look forward to promoting it to the community.

Mong: Thank you, Ledge. Talk to you soon.