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You Weren't Meant to Have a Boss: The Cliffs Notes (paulgraham.com)
71 points by brlewis on Mar 23, 2008 | hide | past | web | favorite | 74 comments



I think people are reacting not to the (nonexistent) suggestion that MegaCorp programmers intrinsically suck, but rather to the implicit suggestion that they suck for not starting startups.

To continue with the lion analogy, suppose that lions in the zoo were there by choice rather than by force. Then, when seeing how pathetic zoo lions are compared to wild lions, we might conclude that they somehow lack the courage to live their wild lives of destiny.

The negative spin is that MegaCorp hackers are cowardly lions. This predictably provokes a defensive response. The positive spin? The cage doors are open.


The negative spin is that MegaCorp hackers are cowardly lions.

There are all kinds of reasons people might work at a big company besides cowardice. They might need the health insurance, or to pay off their student loans. They might want to focus on other things besides work.

Sigh. I wish people would stick to arguing about what I actually said in the essay, instead of what I "implied." If I wanted to imply something, I'd say it.


Sigh. I wish people would stick to arguing about what I actually said in the essay, instead of what I "implied." If I wanted to imply something, I'd say it.

If you want people to read what you say literally instead of drawing inferences, don't use metaphors.

Seeing those guys on their scavenger hunt was like seeing lions in a zoo after spending several years watching them in the wild.

Do you mean that these scavenger hunters were pacing around and growling? Of course not -- you expect us, as readers who understand the nuances of English, to understand that this is a metaphor; to think about the differences between caged and uncaged lions; and to project those differences onto humans.

Guess what? Metaphors are imprecise. Different people have different notions concerning how caged and uncaged lions differ. Different people will project these properties onto humans in different ways.

I agree entirely with what you're saying in the essay, but I think it might have been far more effective if one of your proof-readers had said "you know, this is liable to be misinterpreted, maybe you can reword it?"


It is not considered unreasonable to expect readers to be able to understand where a metaphor ends. Metaphors wouldn't work otherwise.

Imagine if I'd written something about tides, and begun with a metaphor about swinging a condom full of liquid on the end of a string. No doubt some Christian fundamentalists would be so offended at that point that they'd stop reading and write angry blog posts about how "distasteful" it was to compare God's Earth to a condom. Would that be my fault?

You have to draw the line somewhere. If you write about things that are difficult and/or controversial, some people will misunderstand you. I try hard to write as clearly as I can, but the things you'd have to do to make an essay proof against readers who were really stupid or personally oversensitive about some topic would ruin it for the other readers.


being controversial correlates highly to being successful.

If noone hates what you are writing, it is probably boring.


Your criticism of PG's metaphor applies to all metaphors.

P.S.: The role of metaphor isn't to build an argument. It's to make it more vivid and easier to understand. (Bad writers use metaphors to try to build arguments, but PG didn't in this essay.) So even if the lion metaphor was a bad one (according to whatever criteria), that doesn't justify misinterpretation of the actual argument.


Your criticism of PG's metaphor applies to all metaphors.

Absolutely. If you want people to take you literally, don't use metaphors.

If, however, you want people to think about what you're saying and draw inferences... well, go ahead and use metaphors, but be prepared to deal with people misunderstanding what you intended to say (and have someone read over what you've written to look for anything which could be particularly badly misinterpreted).


I didn't say I wanted people to take me literally. I said I wanted people to respond to what I said. That includes interpreting metaphors correctly.


I edited my post without realizing you had already replied. See above.


The metaphor has nothing to do with what people say the essay implies.


"There are all kinds of reasons people might work at a big company besides cowardice. They might need the health insurance, or to pay off their student loans. They might want to focus on other things besides work."

But what if it is just cowardice?

Just because it's ok to make fun of people for their religion and not their race doesn't mean that people will be less upset if you make fun of their religion. If anything, they will be more upset since the fact that they chose it freely makes it more personal. Sure, in some cases it wasn't their choice, but in most cases it was. And surely if you have freedom of choice, and make the wrong decision, then that must reflect poorly on you. I mean I almost can't think of a better working-definition of intelligence, or lack thereof.

Anyway I enjoyed the essay, but just sayin'


Or, they may actually gasp enjoy it!

The assumption that there is no way someone could liek working for mega-corp is the problem.

(That being said, I hate mega corp)


I found the opening metaphor distasteful because it suggests MegaCorp programmers currently suck, even if it's because of their environment. It sounded like PG can, at a glance, see programmers who seem "smart enough" but lack fundamental qualities that YC founders possess. As nuanced as human beings can be, as varied in skill and manner as they are over time, PG fairly quickly saw the "startling" differences and attributed it to the employee environment instead of their being hung-over, for example.

The summary could be slightly modified and be truer to the essay:

"Oh... you aren't working for yourself? You currently suck."

[Disclaimer: I currently work for myself, and still suck.]


As nuanced as human beings can be, as varied in skill and manner as they are over time, PG fairly quickly saw the "startling" differences and attributed it to the employee environment instead of their being hung-over, for example.

http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=142465


I would just like to say I feel I can relate to what pg is referring to.

Last summer I worked as an intern for a fairly well respected and very large company. I must say that I feel the experience was rewarding and that I learned quite a bit.

But I did feel a little bit like the caged animal in zoo that Paul described.

One small example: You couldn't just push your work from dev(elopment) to prod(uction) - regardless of the thoroughness of testing, we had to go through the company's bureaucratic change management system which, while I understand its purpose theoretically, in fact only wasted time. Perhaps its just that I'm still a bit young and would like the ability to roam more freely.

Getting to the other item pg mentioned, the team building excursions, I experienced that last summer in the form of a scavenger hunt. Granted this company is well respected, and that many of the students came from top colleges, I got the feeling that somehow people felt "accomplished" through their sheer acceptance to the internship program. One fellow intern commented to me as we were passing random people on the street. "We work for X. We're better than you." It sounds pretty ridiculous but he was simply voicing the same sentiment that many of the interns passively expressed through body language. There was this atmosphere of complacency (particularly outside the office) that bothered me. I think this took away from the drive to succeed. The same drive that got many of these smart students to this point.


I was struck by this comment: "We work for X. We're better than you." Forget lions and zoos; that's the real difference between people who make good employees and those who don't. I know people I was at school with who wanted to work (for example) for IBM (because their dad did), achieved their ambition and are still there over 20 years later. I've had literally a dozen jobs in the same time. Whenever I've worked for companies like IBM or KPMG, etc, I got bored pretty damned fast, and soon left for more interesting work. But if you feel validated by your employer's credentials, you're probably never going to move on, and you'll put up with masses of crap in the meantime. We're all wired up different.


"Oh... you haven't founded a company? You suck." is exactly the thesis of the essay, not "the opposite".

The implicit suggestion that because they haven't started a startup they suck is certainly what people are reacting to, in large or small part.

Sure, it's just a narcissism piece + YC ad, but come on.


"Oh... you haven't founded a company? You suck." is exactly the thesis of the essay, not "the opposite".

Can you point out where I say this?


Can you point out where you don't? That is the entire gist of the piece the way most people read it, which I haven't seen you disagree with - people doing startups are lesser than people not doing startups. Or in the clarification, people not doing startups are voluntarily lesser.

The analogy to caged animals was the most egregious, as the reactions show, but that was probably deliberately chosen for impact.

"But something seemed wrong about these. There was something missing."

"Founders arriving at Y Combinator often have the downtrodden air of refugees. Three months later they're transformed: they have so much more confidence that they seem as if they've grown several inches taller."


Saying that people seem like refugees is saying that they suck?

This is starting to feel like arguing with a reddit troll...


Ouch.

I guess I should say this is starting to feel like arguing with Paul Grahm?

So is everyone that got that impression from the essay a Reddit troll? If that wasn't what you wanted to communicate, was it the fault of all those people that read it for getting that impression?


> So is everyone that got that impression from the essay a Reddit troll?

I think he called you out on it because you persisted in reading things into his essay that aren't there, and demanding he defend statements he didn't make.

Here's how to do it next time:

pg: Blah blah blah minor aside blah blah blah

you: Aha! You mean MAJOR VARIANT of minor aside!

pg: No, I didn't say that.

you: Oh, sorry. My bad.

pg: No problemo, cdr-erino!

See? Easy! :-)


"those people that read it for getting that impression"

it's the attitude towards reading something that matters.

nobody will have the same attitude towards reading this, especially if they are among the caged lions!

it's obvious and expected that most people will deny their condition if they dont know anything else. if you are born in a cage how do you know how is it on the outside? hell, probably you wont even like it and if attempted to escape return back frigihtenned.

the only way to avoid this is to be precise in what you write, so not to leave any excuse for misintrepreation.

I am totally certain there are more bright programmers sitting in the cage, than a lot of the "startup founders" out there.


> So is everyone that got that impression from the essay a Reddit troll?

Yes. This whole silly argument started when the story went up on Reddit.


Your kindergarden teacher was out today, and now you trolling here?

Actually PG is very very right on that essay. No self respected matture person will participate in a stupid scavange hunt for work. Either work, or go home and work on your side-project. Stupid things like the "rope course" or anything done for "bonding" are retarded coorporate bullshit. Having gove from a 20 000+ company, to a smaller 200 people company, I can say you there is a huge difference how things work.

Unfortunately, as my current company has grown, (it had 120 people when I joined it), I keep seeing some of the same stuff that I saw happening on my old one. Kinda scary dejavu, that your company is not small anymore, but wants to be "mature". There are certain kind of people that like this type of enviroment, where with good ass-kissing,and political games, they can move ahead on the ladder, while they would never would be able to pull it off in a small company. In small companies (i.e. startups), are the real place where you can be "all you can be". You can shine, and your work will be visible and very important to the success of the company.

Here is my other question to people in here. Sillicon Valley is the place to be if you want to work in a STARTUP. Sure, it is a expensive place, housing is insane, gas is expensive, but it is one of the few places that allows you to strike it rich. It is like the Hollywood for software engineers. So, my questions to those people that are working in the big boring mega-coprs, "If you are not originally from the area, and not working in a startup, wtf are you doing here? Why didn't just stay home, and work at the boring mega-corps of your area, (which unless it is manhatan, it probably is a much cheaper place to live).


"self-respecting mature people" might do a lot of things they don't like in order to, say, feed their families.

This is getting silly though. Who can really disagree that people are likely to be happier with a big say in what's happening at work? That can happen to a few people at BigCorps, but not many. Startups are a pretty good way of getting that kind of involvement.


No self respected matture person will participate in a stupid scavange hunt for work.

The company my girlfriend works for recently sent her and the department she manages off to play laser tag. The company paid for this because they considered it to be a valuable team building exercise. The staff turned up because it was fun and the company was paying for it. The employees don't care about "bonding" or "team building" -- they just want to have fun.

Now, I'm sure some people would say "screw this 'having fun' idea, I want to get things done" -- for that matter, I could imagine myself saying that. But people who work at startups have an uncommonly strong work ethic and desire for accomplishment... most people simply aren't like us.


I am very surprised at the discussion this essay has touched off. I thought it was almost obvious what pg was saying. I have been from start up to large company to starting my own start up to working for a large company again. I've lived the same changes two times over now and can completely relate to the caged lion feeling. It's not that I'm a better programmer (or person for that matter) when I'm working for myself. It's that working for a large company has certain restrictions on freedom that come with the added security and comfort.

In short, I feel, act, and behave differently based on my environment. There are a lot of nice things about working for a large company and I work for a good one right now. Still, if I didn't have my own projects to work on (another start up coming on!) I would go stir crazy. I thought the analogy to a lion was quite flattering.


PG lives in a different world.

Considr Austin TX, the 3rd largest computer tech startup hub in US (read: the world). Programmers are NOBODY here, they're disposable code monkeys, and literally all startups I personally was involved in were started by polished and sleasy "MBA types" who regularly push engineers aside and have pictures of M3s and Porsches on their personal blogs. Needless to say, all local startups are a joke, (I won't point fingers). Local investors are (for real) interested in seeing your 10-year financial projections, P&L and all that other useless crap. When I told that to my SV-based mentor he laughed his pants off.

If Austin is like that, I can only imagine how pathetic the rest of the world is, and how hard it is for them to get Paul's points.

If Paul is not exaggerating, SV is truly unique and everybody with a CS degree should be moving down there. And working for Yahoo/Google/Facebook in SV is truly a huge waste of your life.


And working for Yahoo/Google/Facebook in SV is truly a huge waste of your life.

Oh, come on. Wasting your life == working as a Blockbuster video clerk, assuming that you don't have an art career or something else on the side.

Also, I take it you don't live in SV? 99% of the startup activity around here is downright moronic. Stupid money chasing stupid ideas.

Yes, you might walk with that startup swagger. I happened to be in South Park on Friday around lunchtime, and watched all the cool kids strutting in the sunny afternoon. I work for a megacorp, and it's hard not to envy them.

I'm not arguing that megacorps are better for everyone, but it's nowhere near a waste of your life. They operate on a scale that most startups can barely comprehend. The stuff you can learn and do there is serious business.


I agree, and I think I was unnecessary harsh on "wasting your life". I guess I was just trying to say that in SV most success stories were driven by engineers: google, yahoo, facebook the list is long. Moreover, there is a history of it, look at Apple or even HP.

With that you get a very different corporate culture and overall "climate" if you will. This makes it a lot easier for an engineer to start a company and not being pushed to the background 1 year later by his investor's buddies. And living there, I suspect, makes it easier to understand and appreciate PG's views.


"With that you get a very different corporate culture and overall "climate" if you will. This makes it a lot easier for an engineer to start a company and not being pushed to the background 1 year later by his investor's buddies."

Hmm.... have you read ojbyrne's post: http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=143269

?


True, but I warn you, there are no girls here. Seriously, Sillicon Valley is a big sausage fest.


This is hands down the best rebuttal to pg's arguments for young men to start a SV startup that I've read.

(Actually, for young women, too, but for the opposite reason.)


3 big reasons why something so simple gets blown out of proportion so often:

1. "I have a blog. I have to blog everyday. I have nothing to say today. I'll find something to say anyway."

2. "You said something on-line and I didn't have an opportunity to see your body movements or hear your voice tonality. So I misinterpreted it."

3. "I have to show everyone how much smarter I am than everyone else. So I'll disagree with something someone smart has said. That'll show'em."


More of an apologia than a summarization.

Atwood et al are responding to the more general idea, quite consistently expressed, that the startup life is better than the corporate life. By itself, this is neither true nor false, so it's simply not worth fighting over.

Everybody wants to be rich. Nobody wants to fail. Startups offer both.


My grandfather used to say, "If you don't fail every now and then, you are not doing enough."

Failure is a good thing. It is from failure that new things are learned. I am willing to fail if that failure ultimately leads to riches. In a startup failures and riches are not mutually exclusive if the entrepreneurs are willing to learn from their failures.


That depends entirely on whether the failure was worth the risk and amount that was actually learned. I can see this often not being the case.


My grandmother used to say, "If you look for trouble hard enough, you'll probably find it."

Seems to be a lot of that going around on the internet these days.


> [...] the more general idea, quite consistently expressed, that the startup life is better than the corporate life. By itself, this is neither true nor false [...]

Can't one way of living be better than another?

If not, how can I tell whether my life is better now than it was a year ago?

And if I can't discern even that, then why should I try to improve my life?

Or, indeed, how could I?


The point is, it's subjective.


Indeed, but the mere subjectivity of a statement doesn't deprive it of the possibility of truth or falsehood for any given person or group of people.

For example, take the statement "bread is a better food than dung." In my own context, and yours, and probably all of humanity's, that subjective statement is more-than-subjectively true.

For a fly or a dung beetle, that statement is false.

Given the right context and constraints, even subjective statements can be "objectivized" and tested scientifically.

For instance, if you can decide on various goals or constraints, you could find out objectively whether the startup life or the corporate life tends to be better in terms of more money, less stress, quality of life (once you've carefully stated metrics for that), etc.

So, in the strictest sense, the original poster is right, in that by itself, neither the startup life nor the corporate life is better, just as in the strictest sense, the statement "bread is a better food than dung" is neither true nor false. But stopping there can deprive you of valuable information, which might prevent you from eating dung. ;)


Paul, I don't think you get it though.

I've got to say here that I read the essay with the same distaste as Atwood, particularly because of its opening paragraphs. I loved the message, and agree with the theory, but I had a tough time with the presentation.

The connotation that it isn't natural to be an employee and as such those that do are by extension "unnatural" is troubling. I realize that you're not saying "all corporate programmers suck", but clearly, people who have the courage, will, and sheer balls to found their own companies have a unique talent that isn't shared by all.

Of course, the programmers you work with are in perfect harmony with startup life. For them, having a boss is not the way to go. They need to be entrepreneurs. It's in their being.

Some people though, are perfectly happy being employees. These people should not be starting their own companies. They should continue to enjoy life and have fun on their corporate scavenger hunts. They are innately different than the startup founder. That much is obvious.

To extend and equate this difference with being "lesser" - whether by choice, ignorance, or chance - is where you run into trouble with a lot of us. You're inserting a good/bad comparison into an exercise that should remain strictly an examination of difference. Hence, Atwood's suggestion of narcissism.

Of course being a founder is "natural" to you. I've learned that it is to me as well, and no doubt it's natural to everyone on this site.

Sure, a lot of people that work for corporations should look to embrace startups, especially those that are disgruntled. No, startup founders are not a select few geniuses; they are those of a given talents. Surely you of all people realize this. To suggest that everyone shares these talents, or that those who don't are somehow misguided sounds more like religion than business though.

Finally, I don't even think this post was needed. This post suggests that a great many people who read the essay didn't understand it, due to their lack of intellect. In fact, it is more likely that they understood it perfectly, and the problem lies more with how the author chose to support the thesis.


"You suck, but not because of who you are intrinsically -- only because of your environment. You must become a startup founder, or you'll probably continue to suck."

To me, this retains PG's argument but also shows why it's so easy to be offended by it.

(personally I agree with his argument -- I've been in the cage and I've been in the jungle, and I know damn well which one gives me stomach ulcers and which one helps me become a better human being.)


I don't think it bodes well for the clarity of your essay that you're using the beginning of your last paragraph to defend your thesis.

Atwood admits that your, "essay does contain some fair points," but he also indicates that he, along with others, had trouble getting through it because of the distasteful metaphor you lead with. In light of this, I am sure you can understand them not spotting the thesis in your last paragraph.

Finally, perhaps someone with a "conscientiously broadened mind," as you so describe yourself, could fathom a working environment unlike the one you describe? I imagine that new-hires at 37signals, or Fog Creek, would not feel they are missing out because they are not currently heading a start-up. Quite the opposite, I would think they are grateful for the opportunity, the environment and the benefits. Not all successful companies treat their developers like animals. And the ones that don't tend to inspire loyalty. Can you really not see how you may have offended some of these people?


The thesis is throughout the essay. Didn't you read it? I just quoted the last paragraph because it is a direct contradition of what they claim I said.

I imagine that new-hires at 37signals, or Fog Creek, would not feel they are missing out because they are not currently heading a start-up.

Now I'm convinced you didn't read it. There is a paragraph explicitly about this:

  You can adjust the amount of freedom you get by scaling
  the size of company you work for. If you start the 
  company, you'll have the most freedom. If you become 
  one of the first 10 employees you'll have almost as much
  freedom as the founders. Even a company with 100 people
  will feel different from one with 1000.


Honestly, I'm not sure why everybody is up in arms about either one of these essays (full-length version and/or Cliffs Notes). Both of them seem right on target to me.

Reminds me of an essay by Stephanie Tolan titled "Is It a Cheetah?", which offers cheetahs as an analogy for gifted children who are confined to (and as a result, crippled by) public school systems.

Excerpt: "The cheetah needs to run! Despite design and need however, certain conditions are necessary if it is to attain its famous 70 mph top speed. ... It must have plenty of room to run. Besides that, it is best motivated to run all out when it is hungry and there are antelope to chase. If a cheetah is confined to a 10 X 12 foot cage, though it may pace or fling itself against the bars in restless frustration, it won't run 70 mph."

Full article: http://www.stephanietolan.com/is_it_a_cheetah.htm


Imagine if Stephanie had started the essay like this:

"A few days ago I was sitting in a cafe in Palo Alto and a group of public school kids came in on some kind of field trip.

They looked familiar. I spend nearly all my time working with gifted kids, but something seemed wrong about these kids. There was something missing.

And yet the public school they went to is considered a good one, and from what I overheard of their conversation, they seemed smart enough.

... I was in Africa last year and saw a lot of animals in the wild that I'd only seen in zoos before. It was remarkable how different they seemed. Particularly cheetahs. Cheetahs in the wild seem about ten times more alive. They're like different animals. And seeing those public school kids on their field trip was like seeing cheetahs in a zoo after spending several years watching them in the wild."


@DocSavage, I'm not sure I understand your response. If you spend your time working with gifted kids (or talented young entrepreneurs), I think you invariably develop some expertise on how to identify them, in "the wild," in "captivity," or wherever.

Just because their 'public school' (or company or university or whatever) is considered good, doesn't necessarily mean they are good. Conversely, not being gifted, talented, and/or a young entrepreneur doesn't make them bad. But if you spend your time working with people falling in the former category, perhaps you would feel as if the latter category was missing something. That's not criticism, it's just an observation.

And if they are missing something because of their external environment (company, private school, public school, university, or what have you), then, well, as with all analogies, the comparison eventually breaks down. We are humans and not wild animals in captivity. I realize that oftentimes, kids don't have a choice about what schools they go to. But, regardless, that's not really the part I thought was relevant. My point was more that there is a good chance that the people who are unhappy in a large, corporate bureaucracy may be the same people who were unhappy in a public school. Generally speaking, individuals have some capacity or power to change our external environment. And if you're motivated to change your environment, chances are, you will. Books, games, etc., are all great escapes for people/kids who are in a less than desirable (read: less than challenging) situation. Just as start-ups are a great escape for people who are bored to tears in large, corporate bureaucracy.

Shrug. I understand that there are obviously different opinions on this essay, but personally, I just don't feel that what Paul Graham wrote was an attack.


This is such a bogus comparison. Few kids get to decide where to go to school; practically all 25 yo hackers get to decide whether to try starting a startup or keep working for their current employer.


> This is such a bogus comparison.

Actually, it resonated quite well with my experiences in public school. Though it would make a better essay targeted towards parents, who actually have a say in where their kids go to school.


I would like to see a large survey of 25 year old hackers from around the country who would like to start a startup but decided against it, or just couldn't. It is nice to believe that it's just lack of inspiration, or misconceptions about the process, but is there anything else? Maybe.

Or maybe it is because people truly do not want to work hard. Never in my life have I met someone who prioritizes hacking above all else for more than the time it would take to defeat a small video game.

One question, by "start a startup," would that refer to getting decent investment and living a quality of life overall comparable to that of one's peers, or bootstrapping and every day fighting for survival with a hope that one day the tides will turn? If the later then those outside the valley are going to be inspired with a much stronger "yearning for the sea" before they will make the jump without regret.


I have lots of 25-year-old friends who would like to start a startup but decided against it. I'm trying to convince at least one of them to reconsider, since my cofounder quit yesterday and that leaves me a single founder. Their reasons are pretty varied, but include:

1.) One has Marfan's syndrome and needs to work at a place with guaranteed health insurance to cover his medical bills.

2.) Two would like to start a startup in the future, but feel that they don't currently have enough experience. This was also my reason for not founding a startup straight out of college.

3.) One was always interested in startups, but his family background has steered him towards law school, and so he doesn't have the technical skills to start a tech startup.

4.) One has a wife and two stepkids to support.

5.) One (my former cofounder) wants to start a startup, but got into Harvard Business School and figures a bird in the hand is worth 10 in the bush.

6.) One likes working for small companies, but enjoys his work-life balance too much to take the plunge and actually start one himself. He also doesn't desire the financial rewards that come from a successful startup all that much.

7.) One couldn't do it because he's on a student visa and it was doubtful that the visa would let him co-found a company.

They're all good reasons, and you can see that they're a lot more varied than them all being caged animals.


Those are great examples. I think the beginning of PG's essay has two issues that provoked most of the negative comments. He was playing around a metaphor instead of a clear situational simile, and then he left out the details of how these programmers looked like caged animals to him. The latter prompted follow-ups like this: http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=142050

So instead of readers seeing this:

  "MegaCorp programmers looked purposeless and embarrassed, 
   like caged lions, while they were doing the scavenger hunt"
they saw this:

  "MegaCorp programmers who I saw at a scavenger hunt are 
   caged lions with something missing in their lives."
The first sentence wouldn't draw much outrage. The second implies those programmers act liked whipped puppies around their girlfriends, look confused at the gym (if they even go to the gym), etc. [The negatives will vary depending on how you view caged vs free lions.] The programmers don't just act like caged lions in a situation, those programmers ARE caged animals.

To be fair, the actual line in the essay is this: "And seeing those guys on their scavenger hunt was like seeing lions in a zoo after spending several years watching them in the wild." It's just preceded by lots of prose that reinforce the IS relationship.


Your post is one of only two uses on the web of the phrase "situational simile." However, it actually seems like a useful term. Did you make it up, or are you just one of the few cool kids to use it on the interwebs?


"Situational metaphor" is widely used. In this case, because I'm emphasizing an explicit, limited comparison, I used "simile."


"But the difference between the programmers I saw in the cafe and the ones I was used to wasn't just a difference of degree. Something seemed wrong.

I think it's not so much that there's something special about founders as that there's something missing in the lives of employees."

I guess this is what has put off a lot of people, along with the reference to the caged lions, right at the start of the essay.

The key message (as i got it) from the essay was:

"one of the things that convinces me that working for oneself, or at least for a small group, is the natural way for programmers to live."

It is spot on, and i completely agree with it.

In the 'Cliff Notes', Paul summarizes it well, when he writes people are reacting to what they imagine he would be saying in the essay, but yes, i guess the essay intro could have been worded a bit better.

Little what i have read of Paul's essays, it doesn't look like he would be intentionally putting down "any" smart programmer, just based on where (s)he is working, and i would still stick to that opinion about him.


What is so much more fulfilling about startups that is unlikely to be attained elsewhere?


I would say that you have much more creative freedom as a tenured professor (if getting to that point hasn't completely destroyed your spirit) than as a startup founder. Look at some of the stuff Noam Chomsky has been able to devote almost all of his time to--it sure isn't linguistics.


You probably shouldn't use Chomsky as an example. Chomsky is the ultimate outlier. He's got a superhuman intellect and it's actually exceeded by his superhuman patience.

I will tell you a Chomsky story. One night in grad school I was wandering the library stacks looking for anything other than what I was supposed to be working on. I found myself in front of Emerson's complete works, picked out, let's say, Volume 18, and stumbled on Emerson's critique of the Mexican-American war. I noticed that he was saying exactly what Chomsky was to say about the Vietnam war 120 years later. I thought hey maybe Chomsky hasn't seen this, so I wrote him a letter: Dear Chomsky, you don't know me and I'm just a grad student in an unrelated field, but I thought you might enjoy this quote from Emerson. Love, me.

A couple weeks later, I was surprised to find that Chomsky had written me back: Dear Daniel, I wasn't aware of that quote and found it very interesting. Thanks for writing. Love, Chomsky. Well, that was nice of him. End of story.

Not quite. Two years later, I got another letter: Dear Daniel, I was at your university last week and had been looking forward to giving you a call and meeting you. Unfortunately, blah blah blah came up and there was just no way. Hopefully next time. Chomsky.

This one flabbergasted me. By that time I had learned enough about academia to realize that in the star professor system, star professors never do that. They talk to students maybe after class or if they sign up for an appointment. Other than that, they avoid you because they don't want to lose star power. One guards one's fraternizations very carefully, and there are quite fine and quite strict lines demarking the various equivalence classes. Probably most celebrity systems work that way. It's the same reason Hollywood actors date each other.

Anyway, the fact that Chomsky would write a letter like that to a nobody of a grad student, the lowliest of the low, really touched me. It also convinced me that, among star academics at least, the man really is a mutant. A decent mutant. Who would remember something like that after two years?


Who would remember something like that after two years?

I think most academics do.

My own story: When I was an undergraduate student, I wrote a paper which gave sharp bounds on the round-off errors resulting from computing FFTs using floating-point arithmetic; and I noticed that my bound was much better than the bound given by Higham in his Numerical Analysis textbook (which is, by quite a wide margin, the most widely used textbook in the field). I sent him an email -- "Dear sir, I noticed that in section X.Y of this book, you prove a bound of N sqrt(N) log(N) instead of N log(N); if you change foo to bar in your argument, you'll get the stronger bound which I prove in my paper (see attachment)" -- and he wrote back to thank me and tell me that he would make sure the improved bound was in the next edition of the textbook.

A year later, a copy of said textbook arrived in the mail, "compliments of the author".

Two years after that, when I was a graduate student at a different university, I went to a talk by Higham; and at the end when we were asked for questions, I introduced myself (by name, no mention of FFTs) and asked a question. Higham answered my question, and then went on -- in front of most of the department -- to announce that I had found an error in the first edition of his textbook, and that when I wrote to him he had assumed that I was a professor rather than an undergraduate student.

I think "star professors" are actually more likely to remember things like this, simply because someone pointing out something they didn't know, or a mistake they made, is so unusual. It's people like Chomsky, Higham, and Knuth who remember such contributions and can afford to send out free books -- or $2.56 cheques -- to those who provide them.


But the thing Higham remembered was orders of magnitude more significant than thing I was talking about, which was genuinely trivial.

Still, I take your point that among true star professors this kind of brilliant decency isn't as uncommon as I made out. I was using the term "star professor" a little more ironically than that.

I definitely disagree with what you said about most academics, though!


My research advisor was a star professor in a big name school. Also very arrogant. He considered me one of his best students (so no personal axe to grind), but I was turned off by his arrogance. Moral of the story: you can't generalize!


While I agree about the perils of generalization, the problem in this case is not that - it's that we're using the term "star professor" ambiguously. My fault for not being clearer in the first place.


Maybe your item of trivia wasn't trivial to Chomsky... that's actually a pretty cool find and I'm sure he found it very interesting.


Doesn't that completely validate the way in which I used Chomsky? I wasn't being negative.


Yeah, but it's not really an equal comparison. You can start a startup with a bachelor's degree (or less...) and a couple years of work experience. You need about 6 years of grad school, 2-3 years of postdoccing, and 6 years as a tenure-track professor to become a tenured professor. Assuming you aren't weeded out at any one of those stages. Your chances of getting tenure at the end of this are quite a bit lower than the chance that your startup will succeed, given equal intelligence and effort.

A better comparison would be startup founder <=> grad student, cashed-out entrepreneur <=> tenured professor. Startup founders tend to have more freedom than grad students, and multimillionaires tend to have more freedom than tenured professors.


"Your chances of getting tenure at the end of this are quite a bit lower than the chance that your startup will succeed, given equal intelligence and effort."

You are way off! Just count the number of multimillionaire founders vs. tenured professors.


Count the number of people who attempt to start a (tech) startup and compare with the number of people who go to grad school. You've gotta apply Bayes's rule: P(success) = P(good outcome) / P(trying), not just P(good outcome).

Unfortunately, I can't use my personal experience as a reliable count, since I went to college and live in the educational capital of the world (Massachusetts). It also happens to be a startup hub, and I hang around with lots of startup founders. So both my count of tenured professors and my count of successful entrepreneurs are likely to be distorted.

Anyone have actual numbers we could use to perform the computation? We need the number of students entering grad school, the number of new technology firms started, the number of tenured professors in the U.S, and the number of multi-million-$ acquisitions and IPOs.


I think they offer the same opportunities for fulfillment as any experience that tests you and is entirely dependant on you without the usual buffers and safeguards. Whats more the original article explicitly stated that it wasn't just startups that can give you that 'uncagedness'.


PG: I read your essay and most of the comments/remarks across the Internet. In my experience starting at a company, junior hackers learn from senior hackers, most of the problem solving skills I have learned was from other hackers (often more senior than myself). Even learning what not too do.

If young hackers starts companies, who do they learn from? Do they just learn these problem solving skills and people skills by themselves? I am sure YCombinator has something to do with this process...


Young hackers who start companies in cahoots with YC are mentored by old hackers who start companies.


My quick comments about the zoo thing:

1)PG compared two same animals, a lion I think, therefore he does NOT think company workers are inferior to founders. He thinks that they are generally the same type of people.

2)The founder lion's neck is on the line a lot and he has a lot at stake. He lives in a dangerous jungle. The company lion on the other hand has little risk and is a bit like an animal in a cage.

3)One can view the animal inside a cage as either being cruelly mistreated or being sort of lucky and spoiled.


Paul used the caged lion metaphor to illustrate differences in freedom in a vivid way. That's it. This freedom disparity is a fact. Don't try to say that "less freedom" implies "sucks" just because the vividness offended your sensibilities.




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