How I got here, how it went, and what happened along the way.
I didn’t want to start a company. But I had no choice.
I was a SysAdmin after college, because I tried everything else and got fired from them all. I had seven jobs in two and a half years. I’m very fireable. System administration was just the chair where I happened to be sitting when the music stopped. More a safe, fun place than a source of deep passion.
By that point in my career, I was a little easier to keep around. More importantly, I had become worth the hassle. I did good work because I liked the puzzles.
I had a particular way of working. My boss would say, “You should do this thing, and you should do it this way.” He did not look at how I worked, only the result. That gave me the freedom that made the job worth it. When I told him I had finished he would say, “Great, how did you do it?” and I’d say, “Look, is that a bird?”
I automated everything I could, whether it needed it or not. Automation has a built-in reward mechanism. I would take this well-paying but stultifying job - Type this command 1,000 times - and I would reframe it: How about I tell the computer to type the command 1,000 times? It will work. I’ll watch. Bam! Now I can move on to other fun stuff.
Over time I did so much automation I kind of ran out of work. I was in Nashville at the time, while my wife was getting her PhD, so there were no interesting jobs that needed my skills. Hmm.
I could go to business school, but - sorry! - I don’t have any respect for the MBA. Everything I hear about business school is how valuable the network is. If I want that, I’ll take a cruise. I thought about going to law school, but it is so expensive you have to become a lawyer afterward. I didn’t want to be a lawyer. I just wanted to change my career.
So I was like, I’ll find someone who’s doing what I want to do-building a product to help people like me-and I’ll go and help them.
Oh my god, that was miserable. I lasted five months.
Commuting back and forth between Boston and Nashville did not help. I also had the brilliant idea of commuting seven miles each way by bike. In the winter. In Boston. I gave myself permission not to ride if it was under twenty-seven degrees. Being on the road in Boston is dangerous in a tank. On a bike, in the snow, was a cruel joke.
But mostly I just hated our software. I hated what we were building. At one team meeting, a senior developer said, “What does it matter what our customers think? They’ve already bought the product.” Reaction to that statement - nothing at all - told me I was in the wrong place.
So I left.
I got home. I said, I have a little money saved up, and I’ve tried everything else, and now that I think about it, I guess my dad was kind of an entrepreneur. I mean, he did run his own business for thirty years. Technically. I suppose.
Maybe I should start a company?
I know everyone in the world who is building automation tools for sysadmins, and none of them are going to build a business. “I built this, so, obviously, it’s the best.” But they’re only interested in publishing papers and getting academic tenure. Their software was already perfect, so they saw no reason to listen to anyone’s reasons for not using it.
I thought, what if I build something? And then listen to the people who are using it? (And maybe those who aren’t?) Hmm. Could work.
I quit my job. Well, I quit my job first and said, “Eh, I should probably find a way to eat.” So after trying everything else, I started a company.
We lived on my wife’s generous graduate student stipend of $23,000 a year - the job I quit paid $110,000 a year - and, like I said, I thought I had some money saved up. At some point the IRS sent me a letter that said, “We disagree,” and it turns out when the IRS disagrees with you, well, you know how that goes. And even if you’re right, by the time you prove you’re right, “Ok, I had ten grand, and I spent ten grand on a lawyer proving I have ten grand, and…” Just send them the check.
So I was broke when I started my company.
As a sysadmin, you’re not a developer. People will tell you: In DevOps, everyone’s a developer. Those people are lying to you. Or selling something. Which, you know. So I had to become a developer. I had written some code before Puppet, maybe 5,000 lines total. But by the time I handed it over, it was 130,000 lines of code.
The people I handed it to regretted my learning experience.
I adored it.
I learned a lot. It was, to be frank, super fun. One of the densest learning periods of my life. Programming is the best puzzle. I find it harder to step away from it than anything else I’ve ever done. It’s been two days since I ate, I think my wife has been trying to get my attention for the past twelve hours, I should probably … and then I try to move, my legs don’t work. I’m lightheaded from hunger and my feet are tingly.
After about ten months I got my first paying customer.
I often advise other entrepreneurs. Much of what I tell them is to avoid what I did. I only had a vague idea for how to make money. I figured, “I’m confident I can make something valuable. I kind of have a plan, but I know my plan is stupid. If I bring my plan to people and listen to them, that could help make my plan less stupid.”
This is not that bad of a strategy! But it’s not exactly specific.
I didn’t really ask myself: What is my overall business going to look like? How will I get there? I started with services, because I’d been consulting for a while, and I was confident I could make enough money to eat. I know investors are down on services businesses, or anything that doesn’t look like a founder throwing themselves off a cliff with what they hope is a parachute. But you gotta eat. And services are a fantastic way to make money while you’re figuring things out.
I had a lot to figure out.
At the time - 2005 - there were a lot of open source companies out there. When I say a lot, there were four. I thought, “They’re doing well, I will copy one of them at some point later on.” That was not that great of a plan. Two years later Red Hat was the only one left. They’re a software powerhouse today, but they went public during the bubble as a T-shirt and mug company. There’s no copying that.
I did start making money, though. We consulted for three-and-a-half years. “We.” I was the only employee. About three years into the company, I discovered one day that I was incredibly burned out. This was the first of three major burnouts for me at Puppet.
I distinctly remember realizing I was burned out. I was standing next to my wife, at the doctor’s office, looking at an ultrasound. We just learned we’re going to have twins, and I get a sudden flash of insight: My life is unsustainable.
I personally can’t recommend, when you’re in a bootstrapped startup, planning to have a baby. I would work especially hard to avoid having more than one at a time. But that’s what we did.
(Speaking of which: All you people who had your babies serially, you’re lazy and you don’t know what you’re doing. You think you had it hard. We were tested. Y’all are amateurs.)
The technician said, “Oh, you are going to get scanned a lot.” Um. You’re going to have to explain that one. She told us we were having two. We laughed. She must be incompetent. Just because you have twins (she did) doesn’t mean you can recognize them in someone else. While using an ultrasound wand. Which is your job. Scan… scan… BING! The two fetuses clearly popped into view. My wife would have fallen over if she weren’t already lying down. My knees shook. I thought, I can’t do this anymore.
I had been working every hour I could. I counted once: It was about 72 hours in my busiest week. There are people who say, I work 100 hours a week. You might stand there 100 hours a week. I’m skeptical you’re working. Based on what I know about productivity, I hope you’re not.
I couldn’t do it anymore. Since February 2008 or so, coincidentally the same day I found out we were having twins, I haven’t worked more than 40 or 50 hours a week. No evenings and weekends. I might dabble sometimes, but I won’t let it become a pattern.
Don’t worry. I managed to burn myself out two more times without those extra hours. It can still be just as bad. Pack that intensity into fewer hours, and you’re all good.
So. I need help. How?
I had tried to hire people in the past. Both of them were misses.
The first hire was the most notable. In the three months it took to figure out he wouldn’t work out, the best person I could possibly have hired became available and then unavailable. This guy’s biggest impact was ensuring I couldn’t hire the person who would have been most helpful.
There’s one more crazy story about him. In the middle of his interview at my house there was a drive-by shooting next door. He had taken a bathroom break when the shooting happened. They weren’t trying to hurt anybody, just shooting up a car to send a message. One of the bullets ricocheted off the car, then my porch, and broke my front window. He came out of my bathroom, and I said, “Are you ok?”
I needed him to work in my house.
(Yes, I did actually tell him. Eventually.)
When he didn’t pan out, I concluded, I guess I just can’t hire. I’ll do it all myself.
Pro tip: Don’t do that.
Puppet worked in spite of these decisions, not because of them.
Things had changed, quite suddenly. I needed help, and now.
I hired the only people I could think of who might do me a favor: my college roommate and my best friend. Two separate people. Again: Don’t do this. I paid them full salaries.
Years later, I realized, “Wait a minute, if I was paying them full salary, they weren’t really doing me a favor, were they?”
Burned-out people make low-quality decisions. Your brain is gone, and you’re stupid. You work too many hours, you get burned out. You hurt your business doing this kind of thing. Get sleep, eat well, get exercise, step away from work. It’s good for you.
We were making a few hundred grand a year. And by “we” I mean “me.” I’m the only person consulting. I’m getting a little help with the code and stuff.
But now I’m going to hand all the consulting off to my best friend. “Ahh. I can see the light.” And by light, I mean impending twins.
The transition is bright in my memory. He was shadowing me. Μy last gig, his first one. “Hey, funny story, tomorrow this is your job.” We were in San Francisco, my only development gig fueled by Red Bull. I had made a promise to Stanford University, in exchange for some money. If I did not keep that promise by - I think it was - August 31, the Sunday after my gig ended, I had to give the money back. Of course I didn’t have the money anymore. I had to give them the code instead.
I’m at my client’s office during the day, and back in my hotel room at night pounding energy drinks and my keyboard. My kids are due any day, it’s my last flight, my last trip before they are born.
I finish it. I ship it at 1:00 a.m., send Stanford a note with all the details, and go to sleep.
My wife calls me two hours later and says, I don’t think it’s a drill, my water broke.
Well. I’m in San Francisco, and she’s in Nashville. You cannot get from San Francisco to Nashville fast enough to catch a baby. Everyone told me, “Now don’t worry, it’ll take 24 hours.” The kids had other plans.
I was a father before I landed in Dallas. Cell phone pictures in 2008 were terrible, but they were enough to make me cry in the aisle.
Once again, things not to do, but it mostly worked out. My kids didn’t even notice.
My mother-in-law is actually thankful. She got to be in the delivery room instead. She would have been staring through the window if I had been there. It was great for her, and a great bonding experience for them. It was just, you know, complicated for me. If I’m going to flail at fatherhood, I could at least be present for it. Absent bad father is just a step too far.
That was summer of 2008. We were a little over three-and-a-half years in at Puppet. Lots of change all at once. We added two people and two babies. The business was picking up. I was spending more of my time at events and out in the community than writing code. Mostly this meant that the code wasn’t getting written, rather than that I had delegated it.
Again, my wife was getting her PhD. Nashville is kinda my hometown, and so as a result I, you know, hate it. I always told her I wouldn’t be at her graduation, I would be in the U-Haul honking the horn.
But she was pregnant with twins when she graduated. I was running a bootstrapped startup. We couldn’t afford to go anywhere.
What it all means
The birth of our kids was more than a turning point for our family. It transformed Puppet. It forced me to acknowledge I could not do it alone. I brought in help before they were born, and by the time they turned one I’d raised a funding round and moved to Portland.
In the four-and-a-half years of bootstrapping, we went from zero to around $250k a year in revenue, and from one to three people. In the seven years after funding, we grew to five hundred people and more than seventy million dollars in revenue. More importantly, we had an impact on thousands of people and thousands of companies.
I think founder stories are important. They’re usually educational, and often inspiring.
But they’re myth. They are a specific version of what really happened, refined and presented. Often, the myth so obscures what really happened that the lessons are dangerous rather than helpful.
This is a key story in my founder myth. For better or worse, I’m not afraid of you making catastrophic mistakes by trying to emulate me.
They say you can either be a good example or a horrible warning.
Automation is not to blame for all the job destruction and wage stagnation. But you can still do great harm if you build it for the wrong reasons.
We’re told that automation is destroying jobs, that technology is replacing people, making them dumber, less capable. These are lies, with just enough truth to confuse us. You can have my robot washing machines when you pry them from my cold, wet hands.
I’m not some Pollyanna, thinking tech is only ever positive. Its potential for abuse and hurt is visible across the centuries, and especially so today. But I’m more optimistic about the upside than I am pessimistic about the down, and I’m uninterested in scaremongering screeds against it.
And yet. Technology and automation are not forces of nature. They’re made by people. By you. And the choices you make help to determine just how much good or bad they do. Even with the best of intentions, you might be doing great harm. And if you don’t have good intentions at all, or you don’t think ethics are part of your job, then you are probably downright dangerous.
I’m here to convince you that you have a role in deciding the future impact of the technology you build, and to provide you - especially you founders, tool builders, automators - some tactical advice on how to have the best impact, and avoid the dark timeline.
As I was building Puppet, explaining that I was developing automation for operations teams, execs and sales people would think they got it: “Oh, right, so you can fire SysAdmins!”
When prospective customers asked for this, I offered them a choice: You can keep the same service quality and cut costs, or you can keep the same cost, and increase service quality. For sysadmins, that meant shipping better software, more often.
Their response? “Wait, that’s an option?!” They only knew how to think about their jobs in terms of cost. I had to teach them to think about quality. This is what the whole DevOps movement is about, and the years of DevOps reports Puppet has published: Helping people understand what quality means, so they can stop focusing on cost.
And those few people who said they still wanted to reduce cost, not increase quality? I didn’t sell to them.
Not because they were wrong. There were real pressures on them to reduce costs, but I was only interested in helping people who wanted to make things better, not cheaper. My mission was completely at odds with their needs, so I was unwilling to build a product to help them fire their people.
This might have been stupid. There are good reasons why a CEO might naturally build what these people want. The hardest thing in the world to find for a new product is a motivated prospective customer who has spending authority, and here they are, asking for help. The signal is really clear:
You do a bunch of user interviews, they all tell the same story of needing to reduce cost, and in every case, budgets are shrinking and the major cost is labor. Great, I’ll build some automation, and it will increase productivity by X%, thus enabling a downsizing. The customer is happy, I get rich, and, ah, well, if you get fired you probably deserved it for not investing enough in your career. (I heard this last bit from a founder recently. Yay.)
This reasoning is common, but that does not make it right. (Or ethical.) And you’ll probably fail because of your bad decisions.
Let’s start with the fact that you have not done any user interviews. None.
The only users in this story are the ones you’re trying to fire. Executives aren’t users. Managers aren’t users. It seems like you should listen to them, because they have a lot of opinions, and they’re the ones writing checks, but nope.
This has a couple of consequences. First, you don’t understand the problem if you only talk to buyers, because they only see it at a distance. You have to talk to people on the ground who are doing the work. Be careful when talking to them, though, because you might start to empathize with them, which makes it harder to help fire them.
Even if you do manage to understand the problem, your product will still likely fail. As much as buyers center themselves in the story of adopting new technology, they’re largely irrelevant. Only the people at the front line really matter. I mean, it’s in the word: Users use the software. Someone, somewhere, has to say: Yes, I will use this thing you’ve built, every day, to do my job.
If you’ve only talked to buyers, you have built a buyer-centric product, rather than a user-centric one. Sure, maybe you got lucky and were able to build something pretty good while only talking to managers and disrespecting the workers so much that you think they’re worthless. But I doubt it. You’ll experience the classic enterprise problem of closing a deal but getting no adoption, and thus not getting that crucial renewal. Given that you usually don’t actually make money from a customer until the second or third year of the relationship… not so great.
Users aren’t stupid. Yes, I know we like to act like they are. But they aren’t. If your value promise is, “Adopt my software and 10% of your team is going to get fired,” people know. And they won’t use it, unless they really don’t have a choice. Some of that is selfish - no one wants to help team members get fired, and even if they’re safe today, they know they’re on the block for the next round of cuts. But it’s just as likely to be pragmatic. You’re so focused on downsizing the team that you never stopped to ask what they need. Why would someone adopt something that didn’t solve their problems?
What’s that you say? You ignored their problems because you were focused on the boss’s needs? This is why no one uses your software. Your disrespect resulted in a crappy product.
Call me a communist, but I think most people are skilled at their jobs. I am confident that I can find a learned skill in even the “low skill” labor. I absolutely know I can in most areas people are building software.
I was talking to a friend in a data science group in a software company recently, and he was noting how hard it was to sell their software. He said every prospective buyer had two experts in the basement who they could never seem to get past. So I asked him, are you trying to help those experts, or replace them?
He said, well, our software is so great, they aren’t really necessary any more.
There’s your problem. You’re promising to fire the only two people in the whole company who understand what you do. So I challenged him: What would your product, your company look like if you saw your job as making them do better work faster, rather than eliminating the need for them?
It’s a big shift. But it’s an important one. In his case, I think it’s necessary to reduce the friction in his sales process, and even more importantly, to keep those experts in house and making their employers smarter, rather than moving them on and losing years of experience and knowledge.
The stakes can get much bigger than downsizing. In his new book, Ruined By Design, Mike Monteiro has made it clear that designers and developers make ethical choices every day. Just because Uber’s and Instacart’s business model requires that they mistreat and underpay workers doesn’t mean you need to help them. While I don’t think technology is at fault for most job losses, there absolutely are people out there who see the opportunity to make money by destroying industries.
This is not fundamentally different than the strip mining that happened to corporations in the 1980s, except back then they were making money by removing profit margin in companies and now they’re making money by removing “profit” margin in people’s lives. Jeff Bezos of Amazon has famously said your margin is his opportunity, and his warehouse workers’ experiences makes clear that he thinks that’s as true of his employees as it is of his suppliers and competitors.
Just because they’re going to get rich ruining people’s lives doesn’t mean you have to help.
I think your job matters. I think software can and should have a hugely positive impact on the world; not that one project can by itself make the world better, but that every person could have their life improved by the right product or service.
But that will only happen if we truthfully, honestly try to help our users.
When, instead, we focus too much on margin, on disruption, on buyers, on business problems…. we become the problem.
Look, I have to say it: You’re weird. Even if I don’t know you, I’m confident: Somewhere, maybe lurking deep inside, something about you is just not right. I don’t know what, specifically. For all I know, you might be one of those weirdos whose particular strangeness is just how authentically normal you are. shudder.
This might be insulting to you, calling you weird. It happens a lot: I think I’m complimenting someone and they get all huffy. Conversely, people are often afraid I’ll be hurt when they shyly let me know that I, ah, don’t really fit. Don’t worry; you’d need to know me a lot better to successfully offend me.
Society is not a huge fan of weirdness - I mean, the definition is pretty much, “does not fit into society” - and it trains you away from it. We’re social animals, so you probably do what you can to conceal, or at least downplay, anything different. It makes sense. It’s a basic survival mechanism.
I know I do it. I can’t hide everything - some stuff just can’t be covered up - but I can usually skate through a conversation or two before people back up a step and give me that funny, sometimes frightened, look. Being on the west coast helps; I’m a little less weird here than I was in the south. It probably also helps that I cut my mohawk, and the spiked leather jacket and knee high boots stay in the closet now.
I’ve written a bit about my struggles to balance authenticity and fitting in. I think it’s important to call out it out, because those who experience this struggle rarely have the luxury of admitting it. I’m lucky enough in multiple ways that I can be up front about it now. But resolving this conflict matters for more than psychological reasons. Our own goals usually require that we learn to embrace our weird. Not just grab on to it, actually, but really live in it. Inhabit it.
That weirdness is how we win.
This is easiest to show in investing. We have a natural tendency to do what is proven to work, but that is only assured of getting “market” - in other words, mediocre - returns. If you study the best investors, they’re all doing something that seems weird. Or at least, it did when they started. The first people who paid to string fiber from NYC to Chicago to make trades a couple milliseconds faster were considered pretty weird, but they knew the truth: Normal behavior gets normal returns, anything more requires true weirdness. (Well, or fraud. There’s always that if you’re afraid to stand out.)
It’s the same way in life. You can’t say you want something different, you want to be special, but then follow the same path as everyone else. “I’ll embrace what makes me special just as soon as I get financial security via a well-trodden path to success.” Oh yeah. We definitely believe that.
There’s a nice sleight of hand you can do, where you can say you’re doing something different, but really you’re a rare form of normal. The first few doctors and nurses were really weird. Those who recommended you wash hands before surgery were literally laughed at, considered dangerous crackpots1. But now? Most people become a doctor in pretty much the same way. Being a doctor is normal now, even if it’s not common. That’s probably good.
But what if your job is innovation? What if you’re whole story revolves around being different? Can you still follow a common path?
Because that’s what too many entrepreneurs today are doing: Trying to succeed at something different, by doing what everyone else is doing.
I mean. Not literally everyone else. But close enough.
It starts out innocently enough. There aren’t many people starting tech companies at first, and boy howdy are they weird. Someone makes a ton of money, all their weirdness gets written up - “hah hah, see how he has no sense of humanity but is somehow still a billionaire?” - and now we’ve got something to compare to. Hmm. Well. We can’t consistently duplicate Jobs, Gates, Packard. But if we tell enough stories enough times, we find some kind of average path through them. Ah! Enlightenment!
Now that we know what “most” people do, we can try it too. I mean, we have no idea if the stories about those people have anything to do with why they succeeded, but why let that get in our way? Conveniently, every time it works we’ll loudly claim success, but silently skip publishing any failures. Just ask Jim Collins: He got rich by cherry-picking data in Good to Great to “prove” there was a common path to business success. It turned out to have as much predictive value as an astrological reading, and is just business garbage dressed up in intellectual rigor, but that doesn’t seem to have hurt him.
The business world keeps buying his books. They need to believe there’s a common path that anyone can travel to victory. Otherwise, what would they sell? What would they buy?
Obviously this doesn’t work. There is no standard playbook to winning an arms race. Once there’s even a sniff of one, people copy it until it doesn’t work any more. This is pretty much the definition of the efficient market hypothesis: There’s no standard way to get above-average results. Once Warren Buffet got sufficiently rich as a value investor, so many people adopted the strategy that, well, it’s hard to make money that way. Not impossible, but nowhere near as easy as it was fifty years ago.
Of course, you can go too far in being weird. There has to be something in your business, in your strategy, that makes you different enough that you just might win. But adding a lot of other strangeness for no good reason worsens already long odds. The fact that Steve Jobs did so well even though he was a raging asshole, even to his best friends, made his success just that much less likely. Most people are a bit more like Gates and Bezos: Utterly ruthless in business, and caring not a whit for the downsides of their success, but perfectly capable of coming off as a decent person whenever required.
I’m rarely accused of being a world-class jerk, but I don’t pass the smell test as normal for very long. Jim Collins might say maybe if I were more pathological I would have succeeded more. With Jobs and Musk as examples, it seems reasonable, right? In truth, it’s just as reasonable that I would have done better by dropping out of Reed College, like Jobs did, rather than foolishly graduating from it. Think it’s too late to retroactively quit early?
Yes, you have to learn to love your weird, but it shouldn’t be arbitrary. You can’t realistically say that you’re going to rock it in business because you’re addicted to collecting gum wrappers from the 50s. I agree that that’s weird, but is it usefully so? Being a jerk is weird, and bad, but it’s not helpfully so. And really, dropping out of college isn’t that weird for someone in Jobs’s financial position at the time. It’s only if you have a bunch of money that it seems so.
I recommend you take the time, think deeply on what opinions you hold that no one else seems to, what beliefs you have that constantly surprise you by their lack in others. What do you find easy that others find impossible? What’s natural to you, but somewhere between confounding and an abomination to those who notice you doing it?
Those things aren’t all good. And in many cases, you’ll need to spend your entire professional life managing their downsides, like I have. But somewhere in that list is what sets you apart, what gives you the opportunity to truly stand out. They’re the ground you need to build your future on.
Unless you just want to be normal. In that case, I don’t think I can help you.
This is an amazing example of sexism. The doctor’s wards had three times the fatality rates of the midwife wards, but of course, they were doing nothing wrong at all. ↩
Modern capitalism raises the flag of the free market while pitting centrally planned organizations against each other
It’s quite a journey from being born on a commune to raising more than $87m in funding at a software company. This journey forced me to wrestle with existential questions about my true beliefs, and how they intersected my life as an entrepreneur. One’s work is rarely a pure reflection of ideology, but companies need a clear and authentic strategy, which requires a tight alignment between company operations and the founder’s philosophy. I have discovered more about those differences between what I believe and the best ways to grow a corporation while studying economics - that is, how money is made and exchanged - than any other area.
A worldwide conflict between communism and capitalism defined the latter half of the twentieth century. The United States’ ideological battle was the central drama of my childhood, and it was with a combination of glee, pride, and “told you so!” that my fellow Americans watched the wall fall in Berlin, and the USSR dissolve shortly thereafter. I expect few would deny that the US is the standard bearer for capitalism.
Yet, there’s a flaw at the heart of this claim. While the United States operates as a free market economy, the key agent within modern capitalism - the corporation - works more like an authoritarian state. Given how much of our world is built around corporations, this truth and its impacts are critical.
I grew up apart from America’s passion for capitalism. In the era of Reagan, I was living on a commune. My parents did not earn money for their labor, and we didn’t have personal property. My family left the Farm when I was 8, and as I matured, my ideological roots were in conflict with the US’s nonstop pro-capitalism message. As I joined the workforce and eventually started my own company, I found myself attached to neither the communal roots of my childhood nor the Wolf of Wall Street world I moved into. I grew slowly in convictions, as I encountered problems in the course of scaling a company.
The first real conflict came when it was time to hire managers. I founded a company primarily because I did not thrive as someone else’s employee, so what led me to think others would? More importantly, anyone who has ever operated at the front line is aware of the severe costs imposed by the separation between the people who do the work and the people who make the decisions in hierarchies. Hiring managers was just going to make the company do worse, not better, right? Right?
I expect three of you are gleefully shouting, “Yay, holacracy!” right now, while the rest are confused and either offended or think I’m an idiot. I did consider a manager-less world, but a little research provided only examples of disaster, because the only available options just replace an explicit power structure with an implicit one. In other words, it’s still hierarchical with the founder on top, but now decision making is opaque and the system is easy to exploit because of the lack of controls (which looks surprisingly like the cult/commune I grew up in).
Those who are confused or offended by the idea that managers make performance worse would be informed by a deep dip in economics. One of the core principles of the free market is that central planning committees can never be as efficient or as effective as the people doing the work. By definition a free market economy lacks a decision-making hierarchy; the ‘free’ means every agent (individual or corporation) can decide for themselves, without needing permission from a manager above.
While there are many aspects of modern American capitalism I reject, this one I wholeheartedly support1. The downsides of a strong central executive were taught to me early.
Like many other communes, the one I grew up on routinely failed to feed its people - my parents speak with horror of the ‘wheat berry winter’, when we lived on little else. While his people were short on food, the founder of the Farm was off touring Europe as the 3rd drummer in a band, “bringing our message to the world”.
Thankfully none of us starved to death, but the failing was similar to what most communist countries experienced: The central organization could not feed everyone. For years, I assumed this was just incompetence, whether at the scale of the Farm or China. The truth was far more structural. Millions starved during the Great Leap Forward because the central organization was trying something impossible: Managing the productive output of an entire country. The Planet Money podcast tells a great story of how this central planning was walked back in China, but the general point here is that these communist countries did not just nationalize the means of production, they tried to centrally control all of it from within a small group.2
When people talk about communist countries not being a free market, this is what they mean: They tell the farms what crops to produce and in what quantity, rather than letting them decide for themselves. China even went so far as to dictate what hours a farmer should start and stop working, and then directed managers to ring a bell for transition times to control every little group of farmers. Anyone who’s ever had to punch a clock into a rigid, dysfunctional hierarchy is likely getting painful flashbacks about now.
It should be immediately obvious why this fails miserably: The distance between the central planning committee and the farmer is so great that good decisions are nearly impossible. It’s nearly impossible for critical feedback to make it from the edge, where the farmers are working, to the central planning committee in time to affect decisions, and then for those decisions to make it back to the edge in time to be useful. The podcast linked above also points out how unmotivated the farmers were under this regime, cutting productivity even further. Those who have studied lean manufacturing, agile development, and DevOps are likely seeing parallels here.
The result was catastrophe. When a corporation is painfully inefficient it loses money and might have to do layoffs, but when a country fails at growing food, its people starve to death. I don’t mean to imply that central planning was the only cause of famine under communist rule - there were political operations that led to mass starvation, just like in the West - but learning more about these helped crystallize what I do truly prefer about capitalist models. It also converted the phrase ’the free market’ from a catchy slogan into something meaningful to me.3
The most important feature of free market economies is that each person within them is able to make independent decisions in their own best interests4. If you’re a farmer, you can decide what to grow, how much to grow, and when to work to develop your crop. Heck, you can even choose not to be a farmer any more. Success is merely dependent on your finding a buyer for your work at a price you can tolerate. Any given year might not be perfect, but your decision making gets better over time as you learn to respond to customer demand.
This pattern is easy to understand in any system where the people doing the work make the decisions. If you’re a jeweler, you can decide what to make, how much to sell it for, and what to spend your time on. Same if you run a small restaurant, lead local tours, or are a one-person shop doing house remodeling. It’s a free market, where you can charge what the market will bear, and you can quickly and efficiently respond to its whims, ensuring that you are getting the best use of your time.
This was a powerful organizing principle for a long time. The history of human commerce developed largely this way: One person, or as many people as could fit in one shop, would turn labor into a product, then find a buyer for it. Most large-scale efforts were organized by the state of the time: Monarchs and the landed gentry, who were the only ones capable of marshaling enough resources to build palaces, roads, and other large construction projects.
This began to change in the 17th century when corporations like the Dutch East India Company were able to deliver massive windfalls to investors by pooling money and using it to extract resources from colonies. There was a step change in the 19th century, as corporations went from generating wealth to building and owning infrastructure. It’s one thing to outfit a single ship for a year-long voyage, yet another to maintain railroad schedules across the United Kingdom, or run a telegraph network around the whole US. These aren’t just short-term money-making exercises, they’re long-term commitments with big capital outlays and large returns over years and years.
We still live in a free market economy, but it’s not one Adam Smith would recognize. Instead of individual or small operators, ours is composed almost entirely of corporations. Really big corporations. And these companies, they use the same kind of central planning that we so despise in communist systems. I know. I’ve done it.
By the time my company got near 500 people, we had a multi-week planning process, where the leadership (i.e., me and my lieutenants) set out top-level goals, built a top-down plan to accomplish them, then drew information from the front line to see where it needed change. We called this a bottom-up plan, but it was only bottom-up from the perspective of numbers - how much money we’d have, what our costs were, etc. - rather than from the bottom of the organization. We could see no way to have a system where the people doing the work built a plan for the organization. Even thinking about it now, my reaction is, “How would they know what my goals are?”
That’s the kind of question you can only ask in an authoritarian state, not in a free market economy. My goals became my company’s goals, and the only real way to ensure people worked toward them was providing a plan. You might argue that a corporation should focus on shareholder value, but that doesn’t help make decisions about what the company should actually do.
Great leaders find a way to listen to everyone in the company, but in the end, leadership is about making decisions. That’s essentially the definition of the word. And we all know leaders who did not bother to listen, or just did not need to in order to be great; today’s most vaunted tech leader, Steve Jobs, was famously disrespectful of the opinions of others, yet made a lot of world-changing decisions (not all for the better).
This is exactly why working in a big corporation is so stifling. If you’re in a small company, the executives are close enough to the front line that it’s more like working in a tribe, but in a big company, the leadership is so removed from whose who do the work that executive teams operate like the politburo we so decry in communist countries. Certainly the bureaucracies are no more enjoyable or forgiving.
I find it both ironic and painful that my inability to work for someone else resulted in my creating a company that involved a lot of smart, capable people working for someone else.
I wish I had a solution. If this were an easy problem, its solution would already be pervasive, because the benefits are massive. Just in terms of efficiency, we’ve seen how much better the free market is than planned economies, but it also has a hugely positive impact on quality of life. People are happier when they’re in control.
I know the solution is not more freelancing and contract work, which America’s corporations are addicted to. That’s the worst of both worlds: The exploitative nature of capitalism with the inefficient bureaucracies of communism. Transactions on the free market work because they’re good for both sides, but most people only accept part-time contract relationships today when they have no other real choices.
Holacracy certainly isn’t the answer. It’s fundamentally flawed because of its implicit power structure - Tony Hsieh still runs Zappos, even if he does not use a central planning committee to do it - but the biggest problem is it makes no mention of economics. Without a clear system for scoring the transactions (i.e., money) it’s impossible to build a free market.
This problem of how to handle economics within a non-hierarchical company might lead some to think of using blockchain tokens as an internal currency. This is impossible today, beyond the fact that the world of blockchain is mostly about fraud and black market sales. The biggest problem is that we have no idea how to value most of the work people do. I mean, we might know that what a developer should get paid for a year’s work, but how much is that work worth? The majority of the work done in modern corporations is incredibly hard to value, which is partially why companies are so inefficient and make so many bad decisions.
That brings up an even bigger problem - companies today hire workers to make money from their labor. In other words, they generate profit because they pay their employees less than they’re worth. If everyone could trade their labor for exactly the amount of money it was worth, the corporations that employ them would have a much harder time making money. Instead, in modern corporations the shareholders and the executive team - again, the central planning committee we so despise - make the majority of the money, while the front line does all the work and makes very little. This is true even at the big tech firms; software developers might be well paid relative to hotel workers, but they’re paid a pittance compared to the founders and executives. This might speak to why we have no solution yet - free market corporations would tend to reduce concentrations of wealth, which would be terribly disruptive to the current system.
Like I said, I don’t have a solution. But at least now I know what makes the current system so painful, and it gives me some hope that we actually can come up with a better answer. I know I’ll be working harder in the future to manage the downsides of what we have today.
Although I might stress the “well regulated” part more than most modern economists. ↩
Kanban is an incredibly useful productivity tool, initially developed in Japan on automobile manufacturing lines. It has since become a widely adopted practice, including in software development and project management. Or has it?
That cute, simple tool you have that uses post-its, or skeuomorphic representations of them, to keep track of the state of some task or project? It’s not Kanban. To paraphrase Bill Hicks: No no no, I know you think it is. But it’s not.
What you have is a useful means of task and project management. It might be awesome. It might be saving you effort, time, and stress, and actively making your life better. I’m sure it’s a good tool, Brent. But it likely has nothing to do with Kanban.
To be clear, that’s fine. There’s no rule that says Kanban is useful to solving your problem, or that you ever need to use it. It’s just, you know, words have meanings. And the meaning of Kanban is all about inventory management. It’s true that you totally could be using post-its on a whiteboard to track inventory. But you’re probably not.
In both your task tracker and in Kanban, the card represents something. That is, the card itself is not relevant, but it represents a thing that you care about. In your tool, it’s representing some task that someone needs to do and the state that the task is in. This helps you to understand and communicate key information across all of your tasks, projects, and teams. I can see why you find this useful. Heck, I find it useful. I’m using it to track the state of this article, for instance.
In Kanban, the card represents something completely different: The need to refill inventory. At its simplest, you use cards to denote the minimum allowable inventory in a system, such as car doors sitting at an installation station. You do so by literally placing a card on the door at the minimum level. You pair these cards with separate rules about the maximum allowable inventory. Now each of your inventory pools (doors, engines, seats, etc.) have maximum and minimum levels - if the inventory gets low enough, the installer encounters the card and orders a refill, which itself is never above the maximum allowed. As you operate the system you tune it over time to make sure your min and max levels are right.
For most of your work, you can ignore the card and focus on what’s in front of you, but as soon as you encounter it, you must take action. This gives you two features that are otherwise lacking: You get to ignore the card and focus on your work for the majority of the time, which is incredibly important for productivity, and you also get to explicitly separate the process of optimizing the inventory pools from how you consume them. You can always be in the moment when you do the work.
On first blush, you might think to yourself that this doesn’t sound very useful. I mean, how much of your life is really affected by inventory problems? Pffft. Literally all of it. You deal with this constantly in your car, for example; its maker decides on your maximum fuel level (the tank is fixed in size), and you never want to run out of gas, but instead of a card you have a light on your dash when it gets too low. Obviously every grocery store and restaurant has to think about this, but so do banks (envelopes, paper, checks), mechanics (parts, tools), and coffee shops (coffee, chairs - yes, chairs).
You have personal inventory problems, too. We keep hearing about these magical fridges that will order milk for us automatically (but are more likely to be used in a DDoS); Amazon has released one-touch buttons that enable us to trivially order new inventory; and most of us have experienced the ignominy of running out of a key supply at just the wrong time, such as when using the toilet. To see these problems for what they really are, you need to step into a different mental model, a new world.
You need to step into the world of inventory. Rather than seeing everything around you in terms of work to be done, see it in terms of pools of inventory to be shifted, consumed, and refilled. It’s not necessarily “better”, but it is often enlightening. Kanban got created as a tool specifically for increasing the efficiency of such a world, and only makes sense when you’re in it. In fact, the cards themselves aren’t important at all - there are plenty of different triggers available.
It might shock you to realize just how much of your life would be improved by viewing the world this way. Suddenly all of those latent tasks that are sudden emergencies when you run out of something become simple efficiency problems that are easy to model and solve. In my last few years of experimenting with this in my personal life, I’ve built many triggers into many of our inventory pools. None of them are cards, but they are all closer to Kanban than your Trello board.
For example, we go through a lot of granola in my house. Our means of ensuring we never run out is to have two containers, about the same size. We always pour breakfast from one and refill from the other, and the emptying of our refill container is the trigger that causes us to buy more granola.
We keep one in-use and one unused toilet paper roll in each bathroom, plus a cache in a closet. Emptying the in-use triggers using the extra roll, which triggers pulling another roll from the cache. If that is the last roll there, pulling it triggers buying more.
In each of these cases, we’ve set up inventory pools that match how long it takes to refresh them. For example, our granola containers are sized that so that we don’t go through a whole container faster than it takes us to buy more. We never run out of toilet paper, but we don’t have to dedicate a room to storing it.
This perspective also allows us to recognize when we are missing a trigger to refill inventory, allowing us to shift the conversation from personal blame to process improvements. For example, in a bid to teach our kids to self-regulate their sugar intake, we’ve started making our own fruit yogurt and letting them add sugar, rather than buying pre-made fruit+sugar yogurt. We kept running out, though, because it took a day to thaw frozen fruit. We didn’t have an appropriate trigger to start this task at the right time. Having recognized this problem, we created one (I get frozen fruit out to thaw when we have about one meal left of pre-mixed yogurt), and on first blush, it seems to be working. We haven’t yet integrated it with one that buys more yogurt on the right cycle, though, so it’s not yet a complete system.
These are examples of using non-card triggers for Kanban-style inventory management. It’s the triggers that matter, not using cards to represent them. If we tended to have larger collections of unit inventory, cards might be appropriate. E.g., I usually buy razor blades in bulk, and it might be appropriate to label one of those blades with a card to trigger repurchase when I reach it in my stack. Here I’d have to find the right optimization between managing a large inventory, finding the right trigger, and getting the lowest cost per blade (which requires buying in bulk). Combine that with the fact that I usually use an electric razor (which means I rarely assess the state of my blade inventory) and the likelihood of making an inventory mistake goes up, thus increasing the value of a trigger-based system.
For all that I love tools like Trello, and systems like Kanban, I’m not sure they can ever actually be used together. That is, I think we have a whole industry of tools built to model a specific kind of problem, which are instead useful for many things but specifically not the problem they’re meant to exemplify.
The beauty of Kanban is that it’s out in the world, where your work is. (Don’t be confused into thinking that that board or those cards are your work; they just represent it.) I’ve been trying for years to build a Trello board, or some equivalent, that enables an inventory-oriented view on what I’m trying to do, but I’ve not yet succeeded. For instance, [WIP limits] mean something completely different when they represent tasks instead of inventory. That doesn’t mean they’re useless, just not useful for the same reasons.
My recommendation is that you enjoy your task management system, and continue to get what you can out of it. Maybe just stop calling it Kanban. At the same time, though, ask yourself: Where are the inventory pools in my life? What do I run out of, and how can I build triggers at the right point to prevent that? How does my world change when viewed this way?
Most of all, get out into the world. That’s where the work is.