Let me begin by describing something The Hot Seat does not do. A while ago I read Never Say Die, about how society talks about old age. Sometimes I would want to argue with its factual statements (“old women have no access to sex”), but feel immediately aversive. Eventually I realized that this was because Never Say Die spent a long time deriding anyone who believed anything good about old-old age as delusional or mean. I didn’t want to be delusional or mean, so even in the privacy of my own head I resisted arguing. This is a bad tactic for finding out the truth. You don’t win arguments by deriding people who oppose you, you win them with facts. And the facts are that old people in nursing homes get a lot of STDs.*
A lot of business books do this too. “Other people will tell all a company needs is a website and a mascot, but we’re not like that. We think you should have a product.” It’s not quite argument from bravery– more like argument against stupidity. It often follows statements like “we won’t sugarcoat this” and “fancy new economy idiots/stodgy old economy losers believe…”. The effect is to discourage critical thought about what they are telling you.
The Hot Seat does not do this, at all. It gives you information- both legal rules and the unspoken ones, from funding to people management. I think it would be useful for someone planning on starting their own company, but that wasn’t my use case. I want to be an early employee at a start up, and want to be able to tell good start ups from bad. Hot Seat isn’t a complete book for that, but it is a very strong foundation that will make it easier to assess if I’m getting good advice from other books. It is also extraordinarily readable, to the point I would read it for fun.**
*When I went to look up the numbers I saw that they counted everyone above age 65 or even 50. The book’s main thesis is that people take happy statements about the (upper class) young old and inappropriately apply them to the old old (80+). So the author may not have even been wrong, but I don’t like the way she proved her point.
Amazon is in that club of employers (Google, Twitter, Facebook, Microsoft, etc), where working there functions as a stamp of quality. Their employees are frequently cold called by recruiters working for other members of the club, middle tier companies, and start ups that cannot get enough people through their personal network. Amazon pays very well relative to most jobs, even many programming jobs, but it does not pay as well as other members of the club. The salary is just a little less than you’d make elsewhere, but equity and bonuses are backloaded such that many people are driven out before they receive the bulk of them. The health insurance isn’t as good. I realize paying for your own lunch is normal, but Amazon makes employees pay for a lot of things other companies offer for free, like ergonomic keyboards. And then there’s the work environment.
How does Amazon maintain a talent pool equivalent to the other prestige club members while paying less?
This is anecdotal, but my friends at Amazon are much more likely to have come from unprestigious companies or schools than my friends at other club companies. Working at Amazon doesn’t make them smarter, but it does provide widely-accepted proof of their intelligence that they didn’t have before, and can leverage into cushier jobs later. In some ways Amazon’s reputation for chewing people up and spitting them out is a feature here, because leaving after 18 months raises 0 questions among other employers.
So my hypothesis is Amazon invests more in finding and vetting smart people who aren’t currently holding Official Smart Person Cards, and that part of employees’ compensation is getting that card. In this way it’s like the US Armed Forces, which are grueling and don’t pay well but people tend to leave them with many more options than they started with.
I’m unconvinced this is a winning strategy. Operational turnover is expensive, and bad working conditions decrease people’s productivity even when they’re well compensated. But it does at least explain why it hasn’t collapsed already.
Dutch disease is the economic concept that if a country is too rich in one thing, especially a natural resource, every other sector of the economy will rot because all available money and talent will flow towards that sector. Moreover, that sector dominates the exchange rate, making all other exports uncompetitive.* It comes up in foreign development a lot because charitable aid can cause dutch disease: by paying what the funders would consider a “fair wage”, charities position themselves as by far the best employers in the area. The best and the brightest African citizens end up chauffering foreigners rather than starting their own businesses, which keeps the society dependent on outside help. Nothing good comes from having poverty as your chief export.
I posit that a similar process takes place in corporations. Once they are making too much money off a few major things (Windows, Office, AdWords, SUVs), even an exceptionally profitable project in a small market is too small to notice. Add in the risk of reputation damage and the fact that all projects have a certain amount of overhead regardless of size, and it makes perfect sense for large companies to discard projects a start up would kill for (RIP Reader).**
That’s a fine policy in moderation, but there are problems with applying it too early. Namely, you never know what something is going to grow into. Google search originally arose as a way to calculate impact for academic papers. The market for SUVs (and for that matter, cars) was 0 until someone created it. If you insist on only going after projects that directly address an existing large market, the best you’ll ever be is a fast follower.***
Simultaneously, going from zero to an enormous, productive project is really, really hard (see: Fire Phone, Google+, Facebook’s not-an-operating-system). Even if you have an end goal in mind, it often makes sense to start small and iterate. Little Bets covers this in great detail. And if you don’t have a signed card from G-d confirming your end goal is correct, progressing in small iterative steps gives you more information and more room to pivot.
More than one keynote at EA Global talked about the importance of picking the most important thing, and of being willing to switch if you find something better. That’s obviously great in in some cases, but I worry that this hyperfocusing will cause the same problems for us that it does at large companies: a lack of room to surprise ourselves. For example, take the post I did on interpretive labor. I was really proud of that post. I worked hard on it. I had visions of it helping many people in their relationships. But if you’d asked at the time, I would have predicted that the Most Effective use of my time was learning programming skills to increase my wage or increase my value in direct work, and that that post was an indulgence. It never in my wildest dreams occurred to me it would be read by someone in a far better position than me to do something about existential risk and be useful to them in connecting two key groups that weren’t currently talking to each other, but apparently it did. I’m not saying that I definitely saved us from papercliptopia, but it is technically possible that that post (along with millions of other flaps of butterfly wings) will make the marginal difference. And I would never have even known it did so except the person in question reached out to me at EA Global.****
Intervention effectiveness may vary by several orders of magnitude, but if the confidence intervals are just as big it pays to add a little wiggle to your selection. Moreover, constant project churn has its own cost: it’s better to finish the third best thing than have to two half finished attempts at different best things. And you never know what a 3rd best project will teach you that will help an upcoming best project- most new technological innovations come from combining things from two different spheres (source), so hyperfocus will eventually cripple you.
In light of all that, I think we need to stop being quite so hard on the sunk cost fallacy. No, you should not throw good money after bad, but constantly re-evaluating your choices is costly and (jujitsu flip) will not always be most efficient use of your resources. In the absence of a signed piece of paper from G-d, biasing some of your effort towards things you enjoy and have comparative advantage in may in fact be the optimal strategy
My hesitation is that I don’t know how far you can take this before it stops being effective altruism and starts being “feel smug and virtuous about doing whatever it is you already wanted to do”- a thing we’re already accused of doing. Could someone please solve this and report back? Thanks.
* The term comes from the Dutch economic crash following the discovery of natural gas in The Netherlands. Current thought is that was not actually Dutch disease, but that renaming the phenomenon after some third world country currently being devastated by it would be mean.
*Simultaneously, developers have become worse predictors of the market in general. Used to be that nerds were the early adopters and if they loved it everyone would be using it in a year (e.g. gmail, smart phones). As technology and particularly mobile advances, this is no longer true. Nerds aren’t powerusers for tablets because we need laptops, but tablet poweruser is a powerful and predictive market. Companies now force devs to experience the world like users (Facebook’s order to use Android) or just outright tell them what to do (Google+). This makes their ideas inherently less valuable than they were. I don’t blame companies for shifting to a more user-driven decision making process, but it does make things less fun.
**Which, to be fair, is Microsoft’s actual strategy
***It’s also possible it accomplished nothing, or makes it worse. But the ceiling of effectiveness is higher than I ever imaged and the uncertainty only makes my point stronger.
This is either a subset of interpretive labor or a closely related concept: Filtering Labor. Suppose one person is generating information, and another person needs a small subset of it, or needs the information in aggregate but not specific pieces. Who does the labor to filter it down?
Let’s talk about this in a work context. Recently I was on a thread with four other people. Everyone needed to get the original few letters, and everyone needed to know the final decision. But in between those two were 5 or 10 e-mails nailing down some specifics between me and one other person. The others needed to know the decisions we made, but reading the back and forth was of no value to them. Nonetheless, they stayed on the thread. This wouldn’t be such a big deal if they only checked their e-mail once a day because they could skim through the thread, but that’s not how much people check e-mail, and I know it’s not how these particular people were handling this thread, because there were other messages in the same thread that required and received a near-instant response from them.
We could have saved them effort by taking them off the thread, and re-adding them when they were needed, with a summary of the decision. But that requires looking at every message and thinking “who needs to see this?” What if a message is mostly unrelated to them but not entirely? How do I know if a decision is finalized enough to be worth summarizing it to them? It didn’t apply in this particular case, but my general experience at work is that the best moment to send out the summary- when everything has been more or less settled- does not draw attention to itself. You just go two days without having to make a decision. Not to mention that knowing what is relevant to others requires information about them- who filters that?
This only gets worse as companies grow. My job is clearly terrified there will be something somewhere in the company that would be useful to me and I won’t know about it. One solution would be to make things easy to find when I wanted to look for them (a pull-based system). You can do some of this with good archiving and search tools, but to make it really work it requires effort from the information producers or some sort of archivist. Things like tagging, summaries, updating the wiki. Information producers rarely want to put in this effort (in part because of a justified belief it’s just going to change again next week. But by the time that’s identifiably not true, the relevant information has faded from memory). You can attempt to force them but it hurts morale and it really is going to be obsolete in a week.
So my job, and I believe a lot of other large software companies, uses a push system. I’m on dozens of email lists giving me a stream of updates on what people are doing, sometimes very far away in the org. I tried to make a list to convey to you all the lists I am on, but it is impossible. Making the collected output of these lists useful often requires a lot of interpretive labor (e.g. translating a changelist into what a tool actually does and how it might relevant to me). That takes time, and the farther away from me something in the org is, the more time it takes. At this point there is no way I could thoughtfully process all of my mail and get anything else done. It looks like information is being spread more widely, but the signal to noise ratio is so low I’m learning less.
The open office is an attempt to do the same with in person interactions- if people won’t seek out others to give them information they need (in part because they don’t know who needs it or who has it), make it impossible to not overhear. We know what I think about that.
Some of this comes from a failure to adapt to circumstances. When you start a company everything anyone does is relevant to you and you will always know about it without any effort on anyone’s part. As you add people everything is still pretty relevant to them, but it takes more effort to find out about it. Start-ups start using stand-ups or mailing lists. The bigger they get, the more effort goes into sharing information. For a while this doesn’t cost a lot in processing. People have a certain amount of slack in their day (compiling, between meetings) and everything is close enough to what they work on that it’s easy to interpret. But peoples projects grow more and more distant, and eventually you run out of slack. After that every additional piece of information you give them beyond that comes at the cost of them producing actual work.
Which doesn’t mean you should stop: maybe it saves more work than it creates. But I wish companies recognized the effort this required and started thinking more strategically about what was truly useful. There are already specialists that do parts of this under various names (Project/program manager, technical writer, manager, tech lead), if this was made explicit I think we could save people a lot of effort.
If one person is wrong, they’re wrong. If a lot of people, some of whom got extremely rich off of their wrong ideas, are wrong, there’s a good possibility I’m the wrong one. At a minimum, it’s useful for me to understand where I’m differing from others. Open offices are one such puzzle. To me, they are obviously one step short of Azkaban. And yet everyone, including some exceptionally profitable companies, uses them. Why?
[I’m going to restrict myself to tech companies because that’s what I know]
One possibility is some people genuinely prefer them. I keep talking myself up to that, only to read another article about how everyone is miserable and unproductive in them. I talk myself up again, and find a peer reviewed study detailing their terribleness. I thought maybe they were for extroverts, but then I heard extroverts complain they couldn’t get any work done in them either (although they were having a lot more fun not working in them than I was). My friends’ defenses of them/explanations of how they make it work sound more like Stockholm Syndrome, or at best the way I sound when I find a shortcut to finish a useless but mandatory 30 minute training in 5 minutes. I noticeably improved my situation relative to the 30 minute scenario, but that doesn’t mean those 5 minutes were valuable. But let’s assume my friends are a non-random subset and there are people who thrive in (some) open offices. That’s great, if you hire those specific people. One of my major frustrations with my current employer, Stark Industries, is that their interview process (closed room, no distractions, puzzles to solve on your own) is designed to filter in exactly people like me, and the work environment (completely open, constant distractions, work that sometimes feels more like being a PM* than a programmer) couldn’t be better designed to make us unproductive.
One possible justification for open offices is cost. I certainly think that’s a larger factor than many companies admit, but if that were the only concern they’d convert to entirely work from home. Moreover, engineers are really, really expensive, and making us less productive is costly. The extra space necessary for doors or cubicles could easily pay for itself. A slightly different explanation is that even if companies were willing to buy doored offices, acquiring office space is lumpier than hiring. Having more than you need is expensive and it takes time to ramp up after a hiring spree. That could explain temporary open offices, or roommates, but not stable ones.
Let’s go back one paragraph. The open office isn’t the only thing I dislike about Stark Industries. I’m also continually baffled by the fact that my technology company has a workflow designed around synchronous communication, in person if at all possible. No one has time to answer email or IM thoughtfully because they’re running from one meeting to another, so if you want a response from someone you schedule a meeting. The correct response to someone ignoring your e-mail is to ambush them in the hallway or, if they’re at a different site, schedule a videoconference. It took me a very long time to get this, but making a meeting to do something that could have been handled over email is not a failure mode at Stark Industries. This is how they expect it to work. This must be how they want it to work, because instant messaging is a strictly easier technical problem than helicarriers, a project we also do. Information is exchanged at meetings, which means everyone has to process it at the same time and either everyone moves at the speed of the slowest person* or you leave them behind.
What if the open office and the synchronicity are not a coincidence? If you believe synchronicity is helpful (which Tony Stark clearly does, and which I agree with in some instances), then you’ll want to encourage it. But as noted above, this is not the natural mode for a wide swath of programmers. You can hire for it at first, but eventually that cuts you off from too much talent. Any one individual can be forced to switch modes by being embedded in a group full of the other, but there aren’t enough synchronizers to absorb all the asynchronizers.
But… as much some people like retreating to do their own thing, they also like it when other people respond to them immediately. They may be held back by empathy, but they’d still like the answer right away. In an open office, the barriers to demanding an answer are reduced. For one, you don’t have to leave your chair. For two, offices and even cubicles have a sense of personal bubble. You wait to be invited in, and it’s expected you’ll have to wait until they reach a breaking point. After extensive experimentation I can tell you there is no way to generate that bubble at Stark Industries, and I assume open offices in general. I once had a co-worker poke his head into the conference room I was hiding in for the sole purpose of asking if I was hiding so I could concentrate.** Open offices also lower the cost to any one interruption. They do it by interrupting you so constantly you never get into a groove that could be interrupted, but they do technically lower it.*** So even the highly empathetic will feel less reluctance to interrupt co-workers because they are correctly calculating a lower cost to it. In high doses, perhaps mixed with morale events and a culture that emphasizes meetings over email, this could lead to teams made entirely of asynchronous workers forcing synchronicity on themselves.
What is it about synchronicity that makes every major tech company started in the last 20 years be willing to pay so much for it? Based on every survey ever and the coding wars study, it’s not improved performance at the object-level tasks of the job. But work isn’t school, there’s more to it than fulfilling the terms of the assignment. Maybe open offices lead to less redundancy or wasted work. Maybe they make charisma and personal connections less important. Maybe they’re the best way to force programmers to share information in the face of their steadfast refusal to write anything down. That not only makes people more potentially more productive, it makes them more replaceable.
None of this makes me love open offices. For one I’m pretty sure I’m better at synchronizing via technology than speech. By a lot. I love Slack because it gives me everything everyone said I would get from open offices, without any of the costs. It gives me a sense of control and in-touch-ness that makes me want to read it. Meanwhile I approach co-workers in person less now than I did when we all had doors, because I’m hyperconscious of impinging on the other people in the room. But I will say I started doing better at my job when I acknowledged that I was expected to do it synchronously and rolled with it. Matching the office work style turned out to be more important to productivity than matching my own. It exhausts me, but at least it’s the exhaustion of having worked really hard. When I tried to work asynchronously I came home exhausted from doing nothing, which was a much worse feeling.
*Project/program manager. Job description depends heavily on the team but one of their jobs is to coordinate people with subject matter knowledge.
*Slowest doesn’t mean dumbest. They may very well take longer because they’re thinking more deeply.
**The answer was yes.
***The economic term for this is bee sting theory. You’ll work really hard to avoid your first bee sting, and you’ll pay a lot to get rid of it. But when you already have 10, the work to avoid an 11th just doesn’t seem worth it.