I’ve written a few times recently – here, here and here – about the notion of business for punks propounded by the founder of BrewDog. This extract from loc 89 of The Hard Thing About Hard Things conveys something similar in terms of hip hop:

I’ve also been inspired by many friends, advisers, and family members who have helped me throughout my career and also by hip-hop/rap music. Because hip-hop artists aspire to be both great and successful and see themselves as entrepreneurs, many of the themes—competing, making money, being misunderstood—provide insight into the hard things.

I’m really interested in the role that these identifications can play in furnishing a cultural identity as somehow doing business counter-culturally.

Underlying all this I think is a sense of the drama of being a corporate founder: something which Horowitz conveys as “the struggle to build something out of nothing”. Perhaps they’re seeking to frame this experience in terms that are more subjectively amenable than the traditional vocabulary of enterprise? They’re cultural resources being drawn upon to dramatise what Horowitz calls The Struggle. From pg 60:

Every entrepreneur starts her company with a clear vision for success. You will create an amazing environment and hire the smartest people to join you. Together you will build a beautiful product that delights customers and makes the world just a little bit better. It’s going to be absolutely awesome. 

Then, after working night and day to make your vision a reality, you wake up to find that things did not go as planned. Your company did not unfold like the Jack Dorsey keynote that you listened to when you started. Your product has issues that will be very hard to fix. The market isn’t quite where it was supposed to be. Your employees are losing confidence and some of them have quit. Some of the ones who quit were quite smart and have the remaining ones wondering if staying makes sense. You are running low on cash and your venture capitalist tells you that it will be difficult to raise money given the impending European economic catastrophe. You lose a competitive battle. You lose a loyal customer. You lose a great employee. The walls start closing in. Where did you go wrong? Why didn’t your company perform as envisioned? Are you good enough to do this? As your dreams turn into nightmares, you find yourself in the Struggle

As he goes on to define The Struggle, it’s hard not to image theme music and potentially a Rocky-esque training montage. Life contracts during it and reality becomes little more than the intensity of challenge one is subject to. In this  sense, it sounds weirdly spiritual. Particularly at the end: “the struggle is where greatness comes from“.

The Struggle is when you are having a conversation with someone and you can’t hear a word that they are saying because all you can hear is the Struggle. 

The Struggle is when you want the pain to stop.

The Struggle is unhappiness. 

The Struggle is when you go on vacation to feel better and you feel worse. 

The Struggle is when you are surrounded by people and you are all alone. 

The Struggle has no mercy. 

A bit later in Battle of the Titans, Fred Vogelstein transcribes a talk he saw Eric Schmidt give at a technology conference. From loc 1904-1918:

We have a product that allows 82 you to speak to your phone in English and have it come out in the native language of the person you are talking to. To me this is the stuff of science fiction. Imagine a near future where you never forget anything. [Pocket] computers, with your permission, remember everything—where you’ve been, what you did, who you took pictures of. I used to love getting lost, wandering about without knowing where I was. You can’t get lost anymore. You know your position to the foot, and by the way, so do your friends, with your permission. When you travel, you’re never lonely. Your friends travel with you now. There is always someone to speak to or send a picture to. You’re never bored. You’re never out of ideas because all the world’s information is at your fingertips. And this is not just for the elite. Historically, these kinds of technologies have been available only to the elites and not to the common man. If there was a trickle down, it would happen over a generation. This is a vision accessible to every person on the planet. We’re going to be amazed at how smart and capable all those people are who did not have access to our standard of living, our universities, and our culture. When they come, they are going to teach us things. And they are coming. There are about a billion smartphones in the world, and in emerging markets the growth rate is much faster than it is anywhere else. I am very excited about this.

I don’t think it’s hyperbolic to suggest this vision can and should be analysed using the conceptual resources provided by the Sociology of Religion. In fact Schmidt has apparently used that term himself:

large-schmidt-quote-graphic
But what would such a study look like in practice? I don’t think I’m qualified to do it but I’d love to help someone with a background in this area who is interested in this topic. Given the power wielded by devotees of this nascent religion, with only 5 tech companies sitting on $430 billion in cash between them, it seems urgent to better understand how these new elites interpret their own place within the world and orientate themselves to it.

From Battle of the Titans loc 1846:

Anyone who has ever worked for Schmidt will tell you that he is one of the toughest, most competitive executives walking. Ask Rubin what it was like to be on the receiving end of a few “Don’t fuck it up” lectures from Schmidt. “Not fun,” Rubin says. But in public Schmidt comes across as anything but the ambitious, competitive Silicon Valley tycoon that he is. He looks and sounds like an economics professor. Dressed typically in khakis and either a sweater or a blazer and tie, he goes out of his way to make journalists feel comfortable in his presence. He often solicits follow-ups to make sure, as he often says, that he has answered your question “crisply.” He is one of the rare executives unafraid to answer questions head-on. His answers are filled with facts, data, and history. He always has an agenda, but he rarely appears evasive. Most CEOs avoid detailed discussions with journalists at all costs. They’d rather seem evasive than miss an opportunity to repeat a talking point. Schmidt prefers to overwhelm with facts and knowledge. He’s not afraid to talk about facts that don’t support his thesis. He just supplies other facts that do.

From Battle of the Titans loc 1056:

From his office on the second floor of IL 2 on Apple’s campus, Forstall started pulling in some of the best engineers from around the company, creating lockdown areas all over the building as he went. “If you were working weekends, you’d see the construction crews come in all the time putting up walls, security doors … everything … so that by Monday there was a new lockdown area. I’ve never seen walls put up that fast. Looking back, it’s almost comical to think about,” said Shuvo Chatterjee. “As they reconfigured, some of us were moving almost once every two months. For a while, I just kept everything permanently in boxes because I knew if I unpacked, I’d have to pack up and move again right away.” “It became a maze,” Nitin Ganatra said. “You’d open this door and the previous door would close behind you. It was Sarah Wincester-y in some ways.”

In the last week, I’ve been exploring the notion of ‘business for punks’, the philosophy propounded by the founder of BrewDog, as the formulation of an increasingly dominant ethos in which ‘disruptive’ corporate activity is valorised as anti-authoritarian. I’ve been thinking about this mostly from the top-down, as a characteristic of founders and CEOs, but I’d also like to understand how this culture manifests itself from the bottom-up, possibly amongst people aspiring to be founders and CEOs one day, but also amongst rank and file staff. 

In Battle of the Titans, a book about the feud between Apple and Google, I just encountered an interesting description of the eventual founder of Android’s early career, focusing on his putative lack of respect for authority. From loc 909:

At General Magic, an Apple spin-off that wrote some of the first software for handheld computers, he and some colleagues built lofts above their cubicles so they could more efficiently work around the clock.

Get that? Building a loft above your cubicle so you can absolutely subordinate your life to your (cubicle-bound) work shows a lack of respect for authority. Such a weird proposition demands hermeneutic insight: my proposal would be this manifests the ‘business for punks’ ethos, such that unsanctioned action is seen as disruptive, even if it reinforces rather than conflicts with existing power structures.

From Battle of the Titans loc 543. I’m intruiged by non-disclosure of non-disclosure agreements: why stop there? Surely this could be grounds for an infinite loop? More seriously, I wonder how this effects the framing of the proposition to potential staff: is there a performative element to this in order to convey the importance of the project? How is this received by staff?

On top of all that, Jobs’s obsession with secrecy meant that despite being exhausted from working eighty hours a week, the few hundred engineers and designers working on the project couldn’t talk about the project to anyone else. If Apple found out you’d told a friend in a bar, or even your spouse, you could be fired. Before a manager could ask you to join the project, you had to sign a nondisclosure agreement in his office. Then, after he told you what the project was, you had to sign another document confirming that you had indeed signed the NDA and would tell no one. “We put a sign on over the front door of the iPhone building that said FIGHT CLUB because the first rule of fight club is you don’t talk about fight club,” Forstall would explain in his court testimony. “Steve didn’t want 22 to hire anyone from outside of Apple to work on the software, but he said I could hire anyone in the company I wanted,” Forstall said. “So I’d bring recruits into my office. Sit them down and tell them, ‘You are a superstar at Apple. Whatever you are doing now, you’ll do fine. But I have another project that I want you to consider. I can’t tell you what it is. All I can say is that you will have to give up untold nights and weekends and that you will work harder than you have ever worked in your life.”

Loc 558 discusses the role that the performance of secrecy can play in drawing demarcations within Apple:

One of the most obvious manifestations of Jobs’s obsession with secrecy was the growth of lockdown areas all over campus—places that those not working on the iPhone could no longer go. “Each building is split in half, and there is this corridor that runs through the middle of them with common areas, and after one weekend they just put doors around the common areas so that if you were not on the project, and you were used to using that space, it was now off-limits,” Grignon said. “Steve loved this stuff. He loved to set up division. But it was a big ‘fuck you’ to the people who couldn’t get in. Everyone knows who the rock stars are in a company, and when you start to see them all slowly get plucked out of your area and put in a big room behind glass doors that you don’t have access to, it feels bad.”

I wrote last week about the notion of ‘business for punks’ propounded by the founder of BrewDog. This little snippet from Battle of the Titans reflects a similar ethos. Is Silicon Valley full of people who understand themselves as ‘doing business for punks’: is this the ethos underlying a commitment to ‘disruption’? From loc 333:

Jobs was personally offended 11 by this way of doing business and wanted no part of it. “We’re not the greatest at selling to the Fortune 500, and there are five hundred of them—five hundred CIOs [chief information officers] that are orifices you have to go through to get” that business. “In the cell phone business there are five. We don’t even like dealing with five hundred companies. We’d rather run an ad for millions and let everyone make up their own mind. You can imagine what we thought about dealing with five,” he said during an onstage interview at the All Things D conference in May 2003. Translation: I am not about to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to have a bunch of suits tell me how to build and sell my phone.

The assumed meritocracy of appealing directly to the public is counter posed to the stuffy intermediaries with a vested interest in established way of doing things.

A weird little snippet I came across from Marissa Mayer, former Google high-flyer and now head of Yahoo, on how to avoid burnout by “empowering” yourself to “work really hard for a long period of time”. Find one thing you absolutely refuse to miss then completely subordinate the rest of your life to your work, safe in the knowledge that you have ‘your rhythm’:

Avoiding burnout isn’t about getting three square meals or eight hours of sleep. It’s not even necessarily about getting time at home. I have a theory that burnout is about resentment. And you beat it by knowing what it is you’re giving up that makes you resentful. I tell people: Find your rhythm. Your rhythm is what matters to you so much that when you miss it you’re resentful of your work. I had a young guy, just out of college, and I saw some early burnout signs. I said, “Think about it and tell me what your rhythm is.” He came back and said, “Tuesday night dinners. My friends from college, we all get together every Tuesday night and do a potluck. If I miss it, the whole rest of the week I’m like, ‘I’m just not going to stay late tonight. I didn’t even get to do my Tuesday night dinner.’ ” So now we know that Nathan can never miss Tuesday night dinner again. It’s just that simple. You’re going to be so much more productive the rest of the week if you get that.

http://www.bloomberg.com/bw/articles/2012-04-12/how-to-avoid-burnout-marissa-mayer

Even though I believe the concepts of ‘innovation’ and ‘disruption’ refer to sociologically significant phenomena, I cringe slightly whenever I hear someone use the terms. Particularly in the case of the latter, a whole theory of social change at the meso level is implicit within it: it’s deeply ideological and we need to unpack it, rather than reinforce it by invoking the concept of ‘disruption’.

Part of the problem here is analytically distinguishing between the trends these concepts invoke and the discursive resources they provide for managers to give an account of their organisation. On this note, the following infographic was interesting to come across, even if the appropriate resolution leaves it so small as to be difficult to read:

MK-BU521_INNOVA_D_20120522182708

A search of annual and quarterly reports filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission shows companies mentioned some form of the word “innovation” 33,528 times last year, which was a 64% increase from five years before that.

More than 250 books with “innovation” in the title have been published in the last three months, most of them dealing with business, according to a search of Amazon.com.

http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052702304791704577418250902309914

As a descriptive term, used to refer to what Eric Schmidt defines as items that are both surprising and offer new functionality (How Google Works loc 2909), I have no problem with the notion of ‘innovation’. The difficulty comes in how it’s drawn upon as a matter of reflex to aggrandise things that are lacking on one count and/or the other. Interestingly, this isn’t something confined to technology firms:

Technology concerns aren’t necessarily the worst offenders. AppleInc. and Google Inc. mentioned innovation 22 times and 14 times, respectively, in their most recent annual reports. But they were matched by Procter & Gamble Co. (22 times), Scotts Miracle-Gro Co.(21 times) and Campbell Soup Co. (18 times).

http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052702304791704577418250902309914

And inevitably, where there is bullshit, there is an army of consultants whose fortunes are tied to upholding the percieved intellectual legitimacy of this bullshit in order that they can continue to peddle it:

The innovation trend has given birth to an attendant consulting industry, and Fortune 100 companies pay innovation consultants $300,000 to $1 million for work on a single project, which can amount to $1 million to $10 million a year, estimates Booz & Co. innovation strategy consultant Alex Kandybin.

In addition, four in 10 executives say their company now has a chief innovation officer, according to a recent study of the phenomenon released last month by Capgemini Consulting.

http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052702304791704577418250902309914

But as the WSJ article goes on to note, of the 4 in 10 global corporations which now have a chief innovation officer, “an online survey of 260 global executives and 25 in-depth interviews, suggest that such titles may be mainly ‘for appearances.'” The slippage between the two uses of the term has material consequences: invoking ‘innovation’ to account for what we are already doing in more positive terms leads to an apparatus of innovation emerging within the organisation. In other words, ‘disruption’ and ‘innovation’ talk aren’t just window dressing, in the sense that the entrenchment of this discourse has intra-organisational implications. Note: I’m not saying these changes have any capacity to produce disruption or innovation in the descriptive sense, only that these are real changes rather than mere talk.

From How Google Works loc 2454-2466:

Here’s a way to think about corporate communications: Picture a twenty-story building. You are on a middle floor, say the tenth, standing on a balcony. The number of people on each floor decreases as you go up. The top floor is occupied by just one person, while the bottom floor, aka the “entry level,” has hordes of people. Now imagine you are standing out on a balcony when the person above you—let’s call her your “boss”—yells something and drops a few documents. You catch them, being careful not to let them flutter away in the wind, and take them back inside to read. There’s some good stuff in there, and you carefully parse out a few bits that you think the people on the ninth floor should see, given the carefully pre-scripted boundaries of their jobs. So you go back out to the balcony and drop a sheet here and a paragraph there to your team below, who consume them as if they were the proverbial cold waters to a thirsty soul. 136 When they’re done, they turn around and perform their own parsing ritual for the benefit of the thirsty people on eight. Meanwhile, up on eleven, your boss is starting the process all over again. And up on twenty … well, who knows what that guy’s doing.

This is the traditional model of information flow in most companies. The upper echelons of management gather information and carefully decide which bits to distribute to those that toil beneath them. In this world, information is hoarded as a means of control and power.

As you may know, executive coaching is an increasingly common phenomenon, particularly in some sectors like tech. This is how Eric Schmidt and his co-author describe the necessity of it in How Google Works loc 2440:

Whenever you watch a world-class athlete perform, you can be sure that there is a great coach behind her success. It’s not that the coach is better at playing the sport than the player, in fact that is almost never the case. But the coaches have a different skill: They can observe players in action and tell them how to be better. So why is it that in the business world coaches are so unusual? Are we all like Eric when he started at Google, so confident of ourselves that we can’t imagine someone helping us to be better? If so, this is a fallacy. 

As a business leader, you need a coach. The first ingredient of a successful coaching relationship is a student who is willing to listen and learn. Just like there are hard-to-coach athletes, there are hard-to-coach executives. But once they get past that initial reticence, they find there are always things to learn. Business coaches, like all coaches, are at heart teachers, and Bill Campbell, the best coach around, tells us he believes that management is a skill that is completely learnable.

This is something which suggests an obvious comparison to sports, not just in terms of the language used to describe this relationship. James Surowiecki, author of Wisdom of Crowds, draws out the connection in an interesting essay about the increasing competitive advantage accrued when performance is already at a top level:

The key part of the “performance revolution” in sports, then, is the story of how organizations, in a systematic way, set about making employees more effective and productive. This, as it happens, is something that other organizations started doing around the same timeline.

http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/11/10/better-time

But can managerial performance really be measured in these terms? I don’t think it can and the belief to the contrary strikes me as a really interesting conceit, reflecting interestingly on the culture of managerialism: a kind of moral athleticism amongst prominent CEOs in which they aspire to be all that they can be

If we look at the same phenomenon further down the organisational ladder, we get to enforced performance reviews and sanctions ensuing from a failure to meet imposed expectations. We get to sleepless night and diffuse anxiety saturating into everyday life, all generated by concerns over ‘performance’. Coaching still exists but it becomes a very different phenomenon, as this interview I did about the sociology of work-life coaching suggests:

Coaching usually consists of individual or group meetings that continue for a few months. In the beginning of these meetings, a goal is set for the whole coaching process, and then the process continues with for example personality tests or exercises that the clients do in order to achieve the set goal. The coaches that I interviewed were often a bit vague in their answers when I asked about the specific practices of coaching. They would rather talk about ‘realising the inner potential of the individual’, though what this means specifically is rather unclear.

In general, it seems that coaching is for most part about discussing one’s hopes and realities with the coach and getting feedback for both the exercises and tests and for the plans that one has and the actions that one takes. The focus on ‘potential’ is telling of how coaching is quite oriented towards the future but at the same time relies on something that is thought to already exist within the self. As it happens, coaching concentrates on the individual. This means that all the work that is done in coaching centers on changing oneself in order to achieve the goals that one wants to achieve. 

This is reflected in the practices of coaching in the sense that they demand self-reflexivity and focus on getting to know oneself and reflecting for instance on one’s personality with the help of tests and exercises. In terms of employment, this means that questions that concern wider social structures or even organisational structures are left outside the scope of the things one needs to change. It thus begins to seem that change always starts within the individual self – and also that if there is a need for change it is the self that is at fault. In the case of unemployment then, for example, the structural reasons for unemployment are not accounted for but rather it is thought that if the individual just works hard enough to change themselves then they will also find employment – and if one is unemployed it just means that one has not yet found the ‘true self’ and the right goals that would solve the problem. In other words, if one does not find work, it is implied that this just means that one has not worked hard enough on improving oneself.

http://www.thesociologicalreview.com/information/blog/working-life-coaching-and-the-individualization-of-class.html

As a relational technology of the self, work coaching has to be read against the background of metricisation. It naturalises metrics and their attendant apparatus of control, scrutiny and intervention. The issue becomes a narrow one of ‘performance’ rather than one’s place over time within an organisation.

I’ve nonetheless become a bit obsessed with Bill Campbell. He turns up time and time again in business books about Silicon Valley. It also turns out he was actually a football coach originally:

 Son of a local school official, Campbell was born and raised in Homestead, Pennsylvania, near Pittsburgh. He attended Columbia University where he played football under coach Buff Donelli from 1959 to 1961. In his senior year, he was named to the All-Ivy Team. He graduated in 1962 with a bachelor’s degree in economics. In 1964, he obtained a master’s degree in education from Teachers College, Columbia University.[2] He was head coach of Columbia’s football team, the Columbia Lions from 1974 to 1979. Prior to this he was an assistant at Boston College for six years. He met his first wife, the former Roberta Spagnola, while she was the assistant dean in charge of Columbia’s undergraduate dormitories.

He joined J. Walter Thompson, the advertising agency, then Kodak where he rose to run Kodak’s European film business. Hired by John Sculley he became Apple’s VP of Marketing, then ran Apple’s Claris software division. When Sculley refused to spin Claris off into an independent company, Campbell and much of the Claris leadership left. Since 1997, when Steve Jobs returned to Apple, Campbell has served as a corporate director on Apple’s board of directors.

Campbell became CEO of GO Corporation, a startup pioneering a tablet computer operating system. After successfully selling GO Eo to AT&T Corporation in 1993, Campbell was CEO of Intuit from 1994 to 1998. Campbell announced that he would be retiring as the Chairman of the Board of Directors at Intuit starting January 2016.[3]

Campbell is an adviser to a number of technology companies, and was elected Chairman of the Board of Trustees at Columbia in 2005.

According to CNN Money, he is worth $200 million.[4]
https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Campbell_(business_executive)

To what extent is it a marker of prestige to be coached by Campbell? Is it still a status symbol for lesser executives to be coached by lesser coaches? Do these celebrity coaches and celebrity clients underwrite the demand elsewhere? Do all these coaches have top level business experience?

From Peter Thiel’s Less Than Zero loc 1912:

Apple’s value crucially depended on the singular vision of a particular person. This hints at the strange way in which the companies that create new technology often resemble feudal monarchies rather than organizations that are supposedly more “modern.” A unique founder can make authoritative decisions, inspire strong personal loyalty, and plan ahead for decades. Paradoxically, impersonal bureaucracies staffed by trained professionals can last longer than any lifetime, but they usually act with short time horizons.

From Peter Thiel’s Less Than Zero loc 1662-1670. Does informality thrive in tech capitalism because entrepreneurs are terrified of pissing off VC’s who think like this?

At Founders Fund, we saw this coming. The most obvious clue was sartorial: cleantech executives were running around wearing suits and ties. This was a huge red flag, because real technologists wear T-shirts and jeans. So we instituted a blanket rule: pass on any company whose founders dressed up for pitch meetings. Maybe we still would have avoided these bad investments if we had taken the time to evaluate each company’s technology in detail. But the team insight—never invest in a tech CEO that wears a suit—got us to the truth a lot faster. The best sales is hidden. There’s nothing wrong with a CEO who can sell, but if he actually looks like a salesman, he’s probably bad at sales and worse at tech.

From Peter Thiel’s Less Than Zero loc 1279:

Max Levchin, my co-founder at PayPal, says that startups should make their early staff as personally similar as possible. Startups have limited resources and small teams. They must work quickly and efficiently in order to survive, and that’s easier to do when everyone shares an understanding of the world. The early PayPal team worked well together because we were all the same kind of nerd. We all loved science fiction: Cryptonomicon was required reading, and we preferred the capitalist Star Wars to the communist Star Trek . Most important, we were all obsessed with creating a digital currency that would be controlled by individuals instead of governments. For the company to work, it didn’t matter what people looked like or which country they came from, but we needed every new hire to be equally obsessed.

And from loc 1292-loc 1305. To what extent is he saying things in public which other tech leaders only say in private?

In the most intense kind of organization, members hang out only with other members. They ignore their families and abandon the outside world. In exchange, they experience strong feelings of belonging, and maybe get access to esoteric “truths” denied to ordinary people. We have a word for such organizations: cults. Cultures of total dedication look crazy from the outside, partly because the most notorious cults were homicidal: Jim Jones and Charles Manson did not make good exits. But entrepreneurs should take cultures of extreme dedication seriously. Is a lukewarm attitude to one’s work a sign of mental health? Is a merely professional attitude the only sane approach? 

The extreme opposite of a cult is a consulting firm like Accenture: not only does it lack a distinctive mission of its own, but individual consultants are regularly dropping in and out of companies to which they have no long-term connection whatsoever. Every company culture can be plotted on a linear spectrum.

The best startups might be considered slightly less extreme kinds of cults. The biggest difference is that cults tend to be fanatically wrong about something important. People at a successful startup are fanatically right about something those outside it have missed. You’re not going to learn those kinds of secrets from consultants, and you don’t need to worry if your company doesn’t make sense to conventional professionals. Better to be called a cult—or even a mafia.

Peter Thiel describing how the ‘PayPal Mafia’ came about in his Less Than Zero, loc 1238-1251:

The first team that I built has become known in Silicon Valley as the “PayPal Mafia” because so many of my former colleagues have gone on to help each other start and invest in successful tech companies. We sold PayPal to eBay for $1.5 billion in 2002. Since then, Elon Musk has founded SpaceX and co-founded Tesla Motors; Reid Hoffman co-founded LinkedIn; Steve Chen, Chad Hurley, and Jawed Karim together founded YouTube; Jeremy Stoppelman and Russel Simmons founded Yelp; David Sacks co-founded Yammer; and I co-founded Palantir. Today all seven of those companies are worth more than $1 billion each. PayPal’s office amenities never got much press, but the team has done extraordinarily well, both together and individually: the culture was strong enough to transcend the original company.

[…]

From the start, I wanted PayPal to be tightly knit instead of transactional. I thought stronger relationships would make us not just happier and better at work but also more successful in our careers even beyond PayPal. So we set out to hire people who would actually enjoy working together. They had to be talented, but even more than that they had to be excited about working specifically with us. That was the start of the PayPal Mafia.

How Google Works is a fascinating book co-authored by Eric Schmidt in which he details, unsurprisingly, how Google works. In the section I just read, he describes how Google sets out to ensure that they only hire A’s, as detailed in loc 1413:

A workforce of great people not only does great work, it attracts more great people. The best workers are like a herd: They tend to follow each other. Get a few of them, and you’re guaranteed that a bunch more will follow. Google is renowned for its fabulous amenities, but most of our smart creatives weren’t drawn to us because of our free lunches, subsidized massages, green pastures, or dog-friendly offices. They came because they wanted to work with the best smart creatives. This “herd effect” can cut both ways: While A’s tend to hire A’s, B’s hire not just B’s, but C’s and D’s too. So if you compromise standards or make a mistake and hire a B, pretty soon you’ll have B’s, C’s, and even D’s in your company. And regardless of whether it works to the benefit or detriment of the company, the herd effect is more powerful when the employees are smart creatives and the company is new. In that case, each person’s relative importance is magnified; early employees are more conspicuous. Also, when you put great people with great people, you create an environment where they will share ideas and work on them. This is always true, but particularly in an early-stage environment.

But how does one ensure that only A’s are hired, safely keeping the potential plague of B’s, C’s and D’s at bay? This seems to be a matter of hiring people with “raw brainpower” because “Intelligence is the best indicator of a person’s ability to handle change” (loc 1478). But this can’t just be any smart person. They have to be Google-y. How do we assess this? By seeing if we like them. Loc 1523:

Another crucial quality is character. We mean not only someone who treats others well and can be trusted, but who is also well-rounded and engaged with the world. Someone who is interesting. Judging character during the interview process used to be fairly easy, since job interviews often included lunch or dinner at a restaurant and perhaps a drink or two, Mad Men style. Such a venue allowed the hiring executive to observe how the candidate comported himself “as a civilian.” What happens when he lets his guard down? How does he treat the waiter and bartender? Great people treat others well, regardless of standing or sobriety.

Hiring smart people who we think are nice. On one level, this is fair enough. On another, it’s deeply worrying, illuminating an elitist impulse – to hire ‘people like us’ with sufficient ‘raw brain power’ to cope – likely to be all the more pernicious because it basically misrecognises itself as egalitarian. They deny that this encourages homogeneity because they deny this entails only hiring candidates that you like:

You must work with people you don’t like, because a workforce comprised of people who are all “best office buddies” can be homogeneous, and homogeneity in an organization breeds failure. A multiplicity of viewpoints—aka diversity—is your best defense against myopia. We could go off on a politically correct tangent on how hiring a workforce that is diverse in terms of race, sexual orientation, physical challenges, and anything else that makes people different is the right thing to do (which it is). But from a strictly corporate point of view, diversity in hiring is even more emphatically the right thing to do. People from different backgrounds see the world differently. Women and men, whites and blacks, Jews and Muslims, Catholics and Protestants, veterans and civilians, gays and straights, Latinos and Europeans, Klingons and Romulans, 101 Asians and Africans, wheelchair-bound and able-bodied: These differences of perspective generate insights that can’t be taught. When you bring them together in a work environment, they integrate to create a broader perspective that is priceless. 102 Great talent often doesn’t look and act like you. When you go into that interview, check your biases at the door103 and focus on whether or not the person has the passion, intellect, and character to succeed and excel.

But how else to interpret the focus on ‘character’, the airport test (would you like to be stuck at an airport with your new hire?) and the whole notion of being Googley? Data driven hiring may hold out the promise of meritocracy but they fail to consider the possibility that these processes constructs ‘the best’ in a way liable to bring about the very outcome they’re trying to avoid. If it’s axiomatic that Google is already filled with ‘the best’ then it follows that the correct new hires will be those resembling the existing staff.

The same goes for managing people once they join you. Just like hiring, managing performance should be driven by data, with the sole objective of creating a meritocracy. You cannot be gender-, race-, and color-blind by fiat; you need to create empirical, objective methods to measure people. Then the best will thrive, regardless of where they’re from and what they look like.

There’s an interesting section of In The Plex which details quite how much Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer hated Google. From pg 282-283:

Just how intensely Microsoft’s CEO, Steve Ballmer, despised his competitor to the south became clear in depositions that would be filed in the Lee lawsuit. The year before, in November 2004, a top Microsoft executive named Mark Lucovsky had gone to Steve Ballmer with the unwelcome news that he was leaving Microsoft. “ Just tell me it’s not Google ,” said Ballmer, according to Lucovsky’s sworn testimony. Lucovsky confirmed that it was indeed Google. Lucovsky testified that Ballmer went ballistic: “Fucking Eric Schmidt is a fucking pussy! I’m going to fucking bury that guy! I have done it before and I will do it again. I’m going to fucking kill Google.” (The reference to having “done it before” seemed to refer to Microsoft’s anticompetitive actions during the browser war, when Schmidt was aligned with the Netscape forces.) For good measure, Ballmer threw a chair across the room, according to Lucovsky. (Ballmer would later say that Lucovsky’s account was exaggerated, but the CEO’s denials were not made under oath.)

The competition between Microsoft and Google is easily explicable in terms of the dynamics of a number of intersecting markets, with their respective positions within them changing as a result of their rivalry, in the process contributing to the transformation of the markets themselves.

But what makes this a matter of grievance? It’s an interesting question to ask what influence personal antagonism exerts over inter-organisational conflict. Is it a product of this organisational competition? Is it a driver of this competition? Or is it both: does the organisational conflict (continently) lead to personal antagonism, by creating situations in which it thrives, which in turn amplifies the organisational conflict, by introducing personal animus into corporate decision making?

Acceleration theory can too easily slide into seeing speed as a function of technological innovation. The susprisingly excellent In The Plex offers a nice counterpoint to this, identifying the sheer amount of effort involved throughout an organisation in order to increase speed across a diverse range of products. From pg 186:

In 2008, Google issued a Code Yellow for speed. (A Code Yellow is named after a tank top of that color owned by engineering director Wayne Rosing. During Code Yellow a leader is given the shirt and can tap anyone at Google and force him or her to drop a current project to help out. Often, the Code Yellow leader escalates the emergency into a war room situation and pulls people out of their offices and into a conference room for a more extended struggle.) This Code Yellow kicked off at a TGIF where Hölzle metered the performance of various Google products around the world, with a running ticker on the big screen in Charlie’s Café pinpointing the deficiencies. “You could hear a pin drop in the room when people were watching how stunningly slow things were, like Gmail in India,” says Gabriel Stricker, a Google PR director. 

After the Code Yellow, Google set a companywide OKR (the objective key result metric Google uses to set goals) to fight latency. To help meet its goals, the company created a market-based incentive program for product teams to juice up performance—a cap-and-trade model in which teams were mandated latency ceilings or maximum performance times. If a team didn’t make its benchmarks, says Hölzle, it accrued a debt that had to be paid off by barter with a team that exceeded its benchmarks. “You could trade for an engineer or machines. Whatever,” he says. The metric for this exchange was, oddly enough, human lives. The calculation goes like this: average human life expectancy is seventy years. That’s about two billion seconds. If a product has 100 million users and unnecessarily wastes four seconds of a user’s time every day, that was more than a hundred people killed in a year. So if the Gmail team wasn’t meeting its goals, it might go to the Picasa team and ask for ten lives to lift its speed budget into the black. In exchange, the Gmailers might yield a thousand servers from its allocation or all its massage tickets for the next month.

I was interested to learn that Netflix has a seemingly enlightened approach to the working and holiday patterns of their employees:

Since 2004, Netflix employees have taken as many vacation days as they’ve wanted. They have the freedom to decide when to show up for work, when to take time off, and how much time it will take them to get the job done. As far as I can tell, this hasn’t hurt Netflix one bit. Since instituting the policy, it’s grown its market cap to over $51 billion.

Just because there’s flexibility at Netflix doesn’t mean it lacks accountability. Employees have to keep their managers in the loop, and they’re expected to perform at a very high level. High performance is so ingrained into Netflix culture that they reward adequate performance with a generous severance package.

Netflix employees have unlimited vacation because no one is tracking their time. Instead of micromanaging how people get their jobs done, the leadership focuses only on what matters—results. They’ve found that giving people greater autonomy creates a more responsible culture. Without the distraction of stifling rules, employees are more focused and productive.

http://qz.com/584897/if-you-answer-emails-after-work-you-should-be-getting-unlimited-vacation/

However I take issue with framing this as an antidote to ‘workaholism’, as the author of this piece does. Netflix has previously been described as having an ingrained ‘culture of fear’ in which people are fired for their mistakes and many leave each year. Is this a paradox? Or is the enlightened approach to working and holiday patterns likely to be connected to the culture of fear?

I suspect so and would be keen to analyse this in terms of an organisational response to the demands placed on individual employees: they’re encouraged to use their own reflexivity to structure their working life because the demands placed upon them are so onerous and diverse that to try and dictate ways of working would prove counter-productive.