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Linear’s Tuomas Artman, designing surprising tools
Linear’s Tuomas Artman, designing surprising tools

Profiles and Q&As

Linear’s Tuomas Artman, designing surprising tools

On Linear’s product philosophy, magic in software, and building slow.

Written by Shreeda Segan

Photography by Michael Carbone

For Linear’s co-founder Tuomas Artman, finding a tool is a journey through the mind. “Most of the time, when you start using a tool, you don’t even really know what you want,” he says. “You can’t quantify it, and you can’t say: ‘Here are the processes I want this tool to solve.’”

But the faster a founder tries out tools, the smaller that learning curve will get. And eventually, they’ll understand exactly which tools can improve their startups and 10x their productivity. And that point is where co-founders Artman, Kerri Saarinen, and Jori Lallo hope Linear, which helps streamline software projects, sprints, tasks, and bug tracking, meets teams. Despite the abundance of product management tools on the market, Artman still believes there’s room to build the best one.

Artman spoke with Shreeda Segan on how Linear crafts its product philosophy, his first magical moments with software, and why building slow is sometimes the right approach.

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Why is it so important to use the right tools?

A tool is a force multiplier. It can make you 10x or 100x more efficient. It can be a quick shortcut to getting something done. Especially as a founder, you should be using tools for every single thing that you can outsource, so that you can concentrate on what you’re actually building, and to solve those people’s problems.

But most of the time, when you start using a tool, you don’t really even know what you want from it. You can’t quantify it or say: “I want this and this and this, and here are the processes I want this tool to solve.”

If you have all of that in your mind, then you’re basically building that tool. A tool should be so well thought out that you’re surprised by how it identified your problems and solved it. It should give you something you didn’t expect. So there’s a learning curve to picking tools. Because you can’t always quantify what you’re looking for, you just have to pick a tool, use it for a while, maybe switch to something else. Over time, you might start to understand tools better and can make decisions about how to pick them faster.

Tell us about your philosophy of software.

Linear is a somewhat different startup. If you compare it to my background at Uber, Uber was from the get-go a startup that had to compete in a winner-takes-all market. We were building the product under immense pressure and trying to scale as quickly as possible. We were constantly fighting fires to keep it stable and up and running.

Linear is the opposite. The market for product and project management tools has been around for 20 years. We’re not building anything new. We’re just trying to build a software solution that works better. That’s our end goal.

And because we believe that we have the time, we can focus on craft, make sure what we’ve built is good for our end users, and create something we believe in.

Do you take feature requests?

We listen to our users and talk to them, and try to understand the underlying problem behind their requests. But the answer to their problem might not be in the solution they requested.

For example, people have requested the ability to order issues in their backlog. Yes, we could have implemented that. But if you think about the question, “why do people need to order things in their backlog?,” you come to a totally different problem. You realize that maybe the real product issue is that you’re not helping people identify and prioritize what is important in the backlog.

Did you always know you were going to be a startup founder? What did you want to be as a kid?

I wanted to be a pilot for the longest time. And then I wanted to make computer games. I started my first “software company” around 13, building a game together with my friends. We worked on it for three years, but never got even close to completing it. I still learned a lot by playing around with Basic, Assembler, and making designs.

How did you end up at Linear?

At 18, I started working in Finland as a consultant. In hindsight, it was the worst and maybe silliest use of my time — doing consulting when I could have done anything else. It took me around nine years to learn that building something for others is not something I wanted to do.

The last straw came while working for a project for Nokia — WidSets. WidSets was essentially a startup within Nokia and was one of the biggest mobile services in the world at the time, with around 15M users in around 2006 (that was a lot back then). They hired my consulting firm to build out the front-end and design the whole service. I worked on that project for around two years. It was awesome and I really enjoyed it. But then they shut down because they didn’t know how it would make money.

That was my breaking point — not being able to control my own destiny. I pivoted to working on startups. I built a few startups in Finland. Then, I moved to China for a gaming startup. And then I got to move to Silicon Valley. I always had wanted to work in Silicon Valley because that’s the best place on earth to do engineering. But when I was young I never seriously considered it because I thought it was too hard to get a visa. When the opportunity arose, I jumped on it.

I joined Groupon for a few years. Then I got my green card and was able to freely select where I actually wanted to work at. I spent five years at Uber.  We regularly met up with Jori and Karri, who were working at Coinbase and Airbnb. We realized that all three companies had similar problems with building software products. We decided to start Linear.

What were some of your most formative and magical experiences interacting with computers, tools, and software? How has it impacted your work at Linear?

I have to go back and visit my childhood. The first experience was a Commodore 64, which my father brought home. He wrote a simple program on it, asking for input for a name. It would say “Go to sleep, {name}.” That silly program had a profound impact on me and made me an engineer. I was around seven or eight.

The next was when I got my Amiga 500 (and then the 1200 after that). That took graphical capabilities to another level.

The third one was when I got introduced to the Macintosh, when I started working for a company that built multimedia CD-ROMs for corporate customers in Finland. That was my first job when I was 18. It was a very silly thing, but I remember the power button on the keyboard. You could power up and down your computer through a keyboard. I found that so amazing, to think that an electrical signal coming from your keyboard would control the computer’s power switch. I shut the computer down and opened it again multiple times.

You said that your first time “starting a company” was when you were 13?

I had a sound designer and a programmer friend. I was actually a “good” designer back then. We were role-playing table-top games and decided to try to build one of our own. It was called Dawn of Darkness. You could walk around in an open world, ride a horse, fly a dragon.

We probably spent like three years on that project. It never went anywhere, but it was awesome working on that and learning from it.

Why is craftsmanship important to you?

Craftsmanship is building things at the union of science and intuition. Science is listening to users and making sure you understand the problem. But that doesn’t give you the full solution. You could take all of that and implement something solves a problem but you’d be missing out on the intuition, that unexpected touch that elevates the user experience

We call the intersection of science and intuition magic. It makes sure that whatever you have solves a problem in an innovative, novel way that also feels good to your users.

Thanks also to potter Molly Walter for crafting the teacup for this piece.

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