Having managers when there are 10 people are at your company makes no sense. The hierarchy starts out flat, you add a few more people and you're at 20, and the idea of making someone a manager seems like a waste and something a 'BigCo' would do. "We need people who get stuff done, not people who sit around doing nothing but managing", you think. Then you get to 50 people and everything breaks down. You wonder why people are frustrated they can't get things done, while other people are doing things that embarrass your company or compete with other things you are doing. And you realize your company isn't a special little gem that is wholly unlike every other company in existence. You need management.
Just make sure you give the devs a professional ladder and compensation structure that doesn't involve moving to management, because managing isn't something everyone is good at or even wants to do. And make sure that management knows their job is a support role to the people at the company who are making things happen, not the other way around.
Absolutely. I'm simply sharing our experiences with how we run things - that's what my Inc. articles are about. I wouldn't expect anyone else to do what we do because we do it. Find your own comfort zone. There are plenty of ways to do plenty of things.
Note, there's nothing malicious that happens here. No one is trying to promote a bad developer. People are largely doing what they think makes sense -- promoting top performers.
"[C]ompanies tend to systematically promote their least-competent employees to management [...] in order to limit the amount of damage they are capable of doing."
We have experienced the exact difficulties you have described, and have been slowly adjusting to create just enough structure to organize and motivate people. I would add that an additional area that becomes more important as a company grows is communication. Once the company gets past the size where the CEO/Director is getting around and talking with each employee on a weekly basis, and physical walls start to grow between teams, communication becomes much more difficult in both a vertical and horizontal sense (a side effect of added hierarchical structure i suppose?).
That is a priceless comment. It exposes Jason's huge blind spot. Worse, it is on this undefended flank that great future pain may be inflicted. I look forward to the post-learning article.
The underlying premise/assumption is that a 'manager' is not only not doing 'the' work, but they aren't really doing 'any' work. Its a very common meme in engineers, "The company makes money on the code I write, it makes no money at all on this guy telling me what do, it just costs them money."
Let's reason about this using a fairly simple analogy. We will start by positing that we are all rats in a maze. Our maze is, unfortunately, filled with rat dung. We further stipulate that walking on dung would kill us so the only way we can move through the maze is by shoveling the dung in front of us, to the pile behind us and then moving into the space we opened up. All the shoveling burns up calories, if we don't eat we will eventually starve to death. Finally, we add that there is a cheese somewhere in the maze, and once any rat makes its way to the cheese, everyone gets to eat of the cheese. That resets the rat’s hunger level, after the the cheese is located the maze resets around all the rats and process begins again.
Now in our analogy our engineers are the rats. And writing code is shoveling rat dung. And the cheese is a monetizable opportunity. Eating the cheese is collecting money from the opportunity.
In a small company, having everyone shovel as fast as they can, is a great strategy for finding the cheese(s). Some mazes have more than one cheese in them, sadly some mazes have no cheese in them. A manager, whether its the founder/CEO, or someone in that role, is given the opportunity to stand above the maze and see if there is a cheese nearby or in the distance, by seeing both the maze and where the cheese is relative to where in the maze rats are, they can direct rats that have the best chance of getting to the cheese quickly in the direction they should turn, otherwise each rat would be following his/her internal idea of the best way to find a cheese in a maze like ‘always follow the left wall’ or ‘alternate left and right turns’ or ‘leave marks in the dung piles of parts of the maze you have already passed through so that you can pick new passages the next time.’
So the leadership role of management in any technology company, is measured by their ability to get teams to the cheese while shoveling the least amount of rat dung. Good leadership will understand that there are many cheeses (and flavors of cheese, some more nourishing than others) and be able to evaluate the choice of going further for a very nourishing cheese vs going out of the way to munch a nearby, but less satisfying, cheese.
So back to the comment tail … “who don't do the actual work.” briefly.
It is pretty easy for an engineer to recognize a problem in one of their colleagues, even though their colleague is ‘doing’ a “lot” of work, that work is inefficient and thus ‘poor’. Someone checking in version after version of a subroutine, trying to get it correct, when that subroutine is doing something that is provided by the underlying operating system. Lots of ‘work’, lots of ‘check ins’, but someone who had a bit more breadth might have done in a couple of hours what this loser is taking a week to do. As an engineer, one can easily appreciate that this person is taking up an employee spot that could be put to more efficient use by a better quality engineer.
And yet it may be hard for that same engineer to understand that a manager is helping him, and his colleagues, be more efficient by working excellently on a component that will get them to a good cheese, versus working excellently on a component or a technology that does not proportionally have the business value they need to pay their own salaries.
A real world example was a shopping cart company that had, at one time, all of its engineers working on a universal language independent component for presenting product descriptions in over 100 languages and nobody on the team was working on making the shopping cart code play nice with various payment services. Which is the more nourishing cheese? English only and you accept any kind of payment, or any language but you have to have one type to payment card from one vendor ? The engineers were all writing excellent code, using all the latest best practices and the language support module they came up with was best in class, but product was a shopping cart and the “high order bit” for a shopping cart implementation is “can it take money from customers and put it in the bank?”
So when an engineer makes a comment like Jason’s about valuing ‘doing’ over ‘directing’, it can sound like the oarsmen in a galley complaining that he should be accorded higher status than the navigator since without him the boat wouldn’t go anywhere. But the reality is that without the navigator the boat wouldn’t arrive anywhere. Considered in the larger context, the navigator’s role is both more stressful and more important to the overall success of the trip than the oarsmen.
What Jason’s comment misses, and it sounds like a blind spot, is the understanding that you cannot successfully navigate and row at the same time.
I promise it is all love with me and this comment.
Without employing any additional analogies, I believe I can respond to your underlying point by suggesting that in a well-managed organization, one President or CEO can structure roles such that everyone is clear about the business value they provide and can manage their effort accordingly. This requires that you be careful about who you hire, what roles you create, and how you scale the company.
It does not however require that you not scale your company past 20 people.
That strategy, however, will not work in the (bad) kind of Silicon Valley startup that grows by buying Pasteurized Processed Product Managers. Your CS reps need to know what "service" means and how your specific customers perceive and value it. That can be hard to do. Thus, some companies probably do need management structures.
† Though only in the US edition that Rio Grande publishes, not the original German game
"...in a well-managed organization, one President or CEO can structure roles such that everyone is clear about the business value they provide and can manage their effort accordingly."
And once achieving this point, you neither change the people in the organization, nor do you change the direction of the overall effort. Life will be grand.
So 100% agreement on the goal of what every CEO/Founder is trying to achieve which is "Structuring the roles such that everyone is clear about the business value they provide and can manage their effort accordingly," Keeping the organization as close as possible to that goal in the presence of change, the limiting factor of using people that happen to be available in the job market at any given instant in time, and with the added constraint of operating within a viable business model. Well that separates the good ones from the bad ones does it not?
It has been my experience that people who are not able to evaluate the relative contributions of others who are in dissimilar roles make poor choices.
When I read a comment like 'we value doing over not doing' in the context of leadership, I wonder under what set of constraints is leading a group or team not a form of 'doing'? I can't come up with a case where someone who was, as part or all of their role, leading, felt that the 'leading' task wasn't a form of 'doing.' I have also not experienced anyone who, was in a leadership or management role felt that 'leading' (or in our case 'managing') they were doing was 'less hard' or 'less useful' than technical work (designing, coding, debugging, Etc.)
However, I've encountered people whose experience is dominated by technical work firmly believing that managing or leading was both easier and had less impact than the technical work they were doing. And I've known managers who have been managers for most (or all) of their career and felt that is was harder and more relevant than what the technical people did who worked for them.
So, to my way of thinking, if someone does value 'doing' over 'not doing' (which is good) and they understand the different values between what managers do and what engineers do, then the question of 'vertical movers' vs 'horizontal movers' is not a cultural thing its a 'what do we need right now for the business' kind of thing.
It's like reading an article that says "We had to fire Bob today because he came to me to say ask if he could spend more time on gcc, you see our organization is all linux kernel hackers and we like it that way." And yet that pre-disposition to kernel hacking completely misses the benefits that can be achieved if you your compilation environment improves. Anyway, enough analogies, I can tell they obscure the point too much.
When you mention technical workers being suspicious of managers and managers believing that there job is more difficult than technical work, you're talking about the exact situation that Jason mentions trying to avoid. One way of being less suspicious of the value of someone is to do the work that they do. That's what he's talking about.
Good luck with that one.
In your real world example, I would bet those engineers had some management team that decided localization into 100 languages was more important than interfacing with payment systems. That seems like a real world example of a management team that couldn't see the cheese.
Speaking from an engineer and team lead point of view, yes management is important, but not all management is created equally. For many large companies, the Dilbert principle is in full effect - non-technical people are promoted to management where they can supposedly do less damage. What does more damage to a company in the long term? One bad engineer checking in code that creates rework, or a manager that forces an entire team of engineers to head down the wrong path in the maze towards cheese that doesn't exist?
Also, I just wanted to mention that rowing doesn't mean you can't navigate as well. Bright engineers have a good picture of the industry they are in, and market direction. Some are far better at it than their managers. Just because you write code all day doesn't mean you don't know how to make a business decision, which is what I read when you say we can't row and navigate at the same time.
Yes, its the difference between good managers and not good managers. And yes the downside of a bad manager is that a bunch of people have a poor experience rather and the rest of the team having to cover for a poor developer. So picking managers is hard, must be done carefully, and must be constantly evaluated.
"non-technical people are promoted to management where they can supposedly do less damage."
See the comment about the role of the CEO (or more senior manager) if someone isn't the right person for any job in your company, then you have to let them go. If you can't do that you're not doing the management thing correctly.
I strongly disagree, and I think the metaphor leads one astray.
In a startup there is not a navigator and then an army of oarsmen. Instead there's a team with diverse skills attempting to understand and solve a complex problem. A manager can only direct rats to the cheese if they themself fully understand mazes, cheese and shoveling shit. But if each rat has diverse and individual ways to contribute to getting closer to the cheese, the job of a single manager providing vision and directing becomes geometrically harder as each new skill/role is added. Imagine each rat speaks one of a babel of different languages, and we start seeing how hard the job is for our imaginary leader.
It's incorrect to assume that the rats shoveling the shit don't have their own vantage on the cheese, or that the oarsmen can't see the stars and where the ship is headed on their own.
This is the difference between an industrial structure and a a research structure.
Top down command structures are extremely effective when everything is already understood. It's what you want when you're solving a known problem with known tools, like building commodity products on a production line.
But top down networks face enormous challenges when trying to achieve only partially understood goals within complex changing environments. Integrating feedback as it travels back up the tree is very difficult to do effectively. Top down command networks are at their peak efficiency when feedback doesn't need to go up very high. Otherwise, the top of the structure becomes overwhelmed.
This divide is almost entirely why large technology organizations end up innovating primary by acquisition rather than internal discovery (example: MS). They have to buy both solutions to new market opportunities as well as the people who understand and built those solutions, because their internal structure is very poor at learning and adaptation.
Collaborative problem solving is different. It relies on frequent and open ended horizontal communication. It often appears directionless. But what it facilitates is overlapping shared understandings far more detailed than could ever be centralized in one person. It allows points of command to emerge when necessary, and disappear when not. The ease with which a small team does this organic communication and discovery is one of the huge advantages of small companies. It's not one you should shed lightly.
The only way to do this in large companies is to maintain a very horizontal structure where individual business units have a great deal of autonomy in accomplishing their goals, and where employees can fluidly move between teams to spread knowledge.
There's another option for the big company: create an internal market structure. But AFAIK no one has a repeatable template for quite how to do that (and apparently Google's attempt at it has somewhat failed).
In any case, returning to flogging your metaphor:
The smart navigator will listen to the oarsman: perhaps they've noticed something I haven't? And the very smart navigator will teach all who are interested about his skills, so that the whole boat becomes more valuable than it's competitors.
And notice that no where in here have I mentioned any terminology about prestige, respect, or "actual work". This stuff is cancerous, and whenever you see it, get rid of it immediately.
Managing a company below 25 people is relatively easy. You can still talk to most people every day, you can gather them all in one room, information flow is unrestricted. But staying under 25 people means for most companies that you are stifling growth.
Once you get above the magical 25 people threshold, you'll find that it is simply impossible to manage the company effectively using a completely flat structure. Also, you'll discover a lot of new problems you never suspected existed before: you'll need internal PR, for instance, as people in one part of the company won't know what people in other parts are doing. There will be myths to dispel, growing animosities, lack of direction. And there is simply no way you can keep your pretty flat structure with 45 people.
I know that 37signals' advice resonates with people. They are the cool kids. But keep in mind they are an exceptional company, in every sense of the word.
flat == good
You can't have your cake and eat it, too.
I'm not sure we have similar answers, but one response to the problem of not being able to afford people who don't do real work is to make sure everyone is doing real work. We're primarily a services firm, and everybody in that org, including Dave, our President, is billable. It's something I tell people in interviews, and that I'm sort of proud to be able to say; everyone's grounded in the actual work that our actual people are actually doing for actual clients.
In that spirit, one way to address this problem might be to have team leads instead of managers.
I feel like Joel wrote about this a few years ago too, and while I'm probably wrong about this, off the top of my head it feels like their answer to this is that when they have too many senior people, they think about new products. Isn't the highest level on their comp ladder (not a fan of that thing) reserved for people who can run products?
Would love to hear more about what people in the 20-40 employee bracket are doing here.
Our company has an interesting dynamic. I would say everyone has the ability to "speak up" but we have designated management roles. I speculate there are some reasons for this:
1. Leadership - "junior" people need a certain level of mentorship. Many of them don't understand process and need managers to guide them on those processes. Hiring the quality of people (even at "the bottom") that your firms may attract is VERY difficult for the other 99% of companies like us out there. We simply don't have the whole techie seen watching our firm day to day and thus don't attract them to our company. Hiring SUCKS. Is that our issue? Sure. But this utopian business world isn't always possible -- even though we want it to be.
2. External client view - Our company works almost exclusively with blue chip companies. They expect to see CV's with years of experience and fancy titles like "Principal Consultant", "Management Consultant", etc. etc. With these titles comes the responsibilities of managing people. When I used to work for the largest biz software vendor in the world I remember there was a title "Engagement Architect". I was basically told that this position only existed because the client contact (mainly the CIO) needed a contact at our company that was on his same "level". Also, some people flat out do not have soft skills.
I think the overall point is this... this is not a lesson in how to run a better business. This is a lesson in how Jason is happiest in running his small business and wants to keep it a small business. Many of us love the agility of being in a small company and fear if we add more numbers we will lose that agility. (and that's probably true) 37signals has only increased it's employee base to 26 over 11 years. With the amount of press they have drawn there is no reason why this number shouldn't be 260. For the record, I'm not saying that it should be 260, I'm saying that they have probably favored higher profit margins on their existing employee base rather than to scale the business out vertically.
Fred Wilson once wrote "Marketing is for companies who have sucky products." In order to do this with 26 people, you need to find 26 very good people. Do you know extremely difficult that is to do? It's even difficult with just 2! Face it, most people SUCK at business. I applaud Jason (and others) who have had the fortune and ability to do such a thing.
"real work" != "billable work"
"Everyone does billable work" seems great from the $ POV. That doesn't mean that people who are never billable aren't critical too.
...and was inspired by this Fast Company Article about some GE division that had no middle management...
The point is that it's possible to run a company where managers don't have a purpose and aren't necessary.
This study from around 2002/2003 puts their revenues at $8 billion annually with 60,000 employees. That puts their per-employee revenues at around $133k.
This puts their revenues at $24.2 billion in 2008, which is almost $300k per employee, if you use the ~85,000 employees figure.
Looking more closely, they're a strange sort of conglomerate. At a glance, I see two banks, two insurance companies, roughly two hundred industrial companies, a dozen retail shops, a dozen food-related businesses, a dozen research firms, and ten education companies.
In a way, it reminds me of Idealab, in that each new company is a new pool of equity (with the associated incentives that result from ownership), and that failures are not punished, but rather result in retraining or placement in a different firm. (for full co-op members).
It's also interesting to see that the founder was a priest who started off with a co-operative polytechnic school and bootstrapped everything from that base.
So those figures would indicate 174,000 Euros per employee, which makes a lot more sense.
if your environment has a significant amount of elements that engineers (or generally - employees) wouldn't want to be in charge for, then you are already deep into the problem and the shortest solution here is to assign managers to be in charge of those things.
The key is to not allow the situation to degrade into creating "demand" for managers. For example, once you create one manager for a group, s/he would want to talk to somebody, preferably managers, from other groups. That burden on the other groups would naturally trigger response - creating managers in the other groups. That starts to structure the information and decision flow the way that rank-and-file employees lose much of the visibility into the product and business and thus lose the ability (and motivation) to take even small decisions, thus requiring even more management ...
This quote really, deeply bothered me. One of the major differences between alpha males and the rest of the population is that they will always assume they'll end up in the top spot. Your prototypical alpha male won't even consider the odds of being on the bottom in that lottery.
To push it further, those same aggressive types will have the passion and voice to draw support for their views, no matter the substance. A "flat" structure overvalues the opinions of the loud and aggressive, with little room for more pensive contributors, especially women.
In other words, if you leave the authorship of the social contract to the loudest people, you may end up with a rather oppressive outcome. This is a universal rule, often overlooked by the alpha males who spend their time talking to Inc. Magazine.
If so, then you are assuming a context in which the agents of the situation can change the roles in which they are assigned permanently. That is not the case in this context, because the agents (Jason Fried's support team) are rotated between management and worker, and no one is getting promoted vertically.
"A "flat" structure overvalues the opinions of the loud and aggressive, with little room for more pensive contributors, especially women."
Coincidentally enough, Jason leads off the article with an anecdote about a talented woman leaving the company because of their flat structure.
While that's true, i think his original point was that the alpha males will choose decisions that favour themselves....Introspective motivational awareness is hardly a profitable trait in our current society* (*-whatever i have seen is constrained to indian IT)
The takeaway for me is that you should be constantly questioning whether there is a different way to run things that enhances the performance of your organization as a whole. I have personally been privy to how the people with the most impressive titles frequently have the least connection to what's going on in the business. Some of the methods taken at 37Signals seem to be aimed at fixing this problem, which I think is commendable.
At the same time, it seems a shame to have to let go of a good employee because they want to take on more responsibility. If their view on more responsibility is simply a bigger title, then perhaps they weren't the right fit for 37Signals. However, in my opinion, ambition and competence should be rewarded, so it seems like there may have been a better way to handle the situation than choosing between staying in the same role and leaving the organization.
You're right - we don't have the exact right answer. We're always trying to find the right answer for the right time. We may have a different opinion in 3 years or if we have 35 people. Who knows, but we're open to figuring it out once we get there.
In the end we want to build a company that allows people to do the best work of their lives.
I'm on a small team within a larger organization that we support (in dev and tool usage). A challenge for us is that people in the larger org are used to having a manager to route their requests to.
I may give a rotational approach a whirl. But right now, one of my primary roles is as s&!t umbrella and I don't want to overly burden my real producers.
(Also, the committee only has to ratify the officer's decision with a simple majority in the case of purely internal affairs.)
There is a PR lesson in this for all of us!
Also, think about it like this if you feel "evil" doing this, as a CEO you are the mind of the organization, you must think for the organization because like a baby it cannot fend for itself. I am commending Jason for being creative - most companies throw away money year after on ads in magazines like Inc that barely get glanced at - Jason, on behalf of his organization, has sold you his product - correct me if he hasn’t.
This type of information doesn't translate well to most other companies. I hope 37signals' audience gets that. For software startups, many of their ideas are exceptional and it's fantastic to see real-world examples. For already-established companies and companies that can't be as picky as 37s, testing this type of structure seems unnecessarily risky. I believe 37s has addressed this in the past, and Jason has in his Inc. writings. I just hope people are paying attention.
In my experience, managers in most departments have essentially taken the role of sheep-herders. So, I started to ask myself: why do I need a manager when I work well on my own, making smart, educated decisions that are based upon the ideals and successes of other smart, educated and passionate people?
After all, I'm being hired for my prowess, no? If I am, do I need a manager? And shouldn't you always hire people who have these sensibilities?
I think the message I find within this rubble of contemporary and progressive ideologies is: Hire smart. If you have a good team who understand their roles and how it pertains to the goals of the company, you don't need managers - not for a small or mid-sized company, anyway. Basecamp has been the best PM I've ever worked with - alive or binary. Software has already begun to facilitate the role perfectly for me.
My responsibility is mainly to be a shit umbrella, so my creative and developers can do work, especially when we're all working on multiple clients. I'm not doing my job when I have to have them in meetings, in fact we don't meet save for face-to-face discussions.
That and of course dealing with the rowdiness of clients, hammering out scope, keeping things to scope, and being the bad guy when necessary with the client. (This is actually harder then people realize, our default human reaction is to help people, and it requires taking abuse in the extremes that is simply part of your job)
This article sums up my views nicely: http://weblog.muledesign.com/2010/10/project_managers_not_ca...
So for me doing PM work is actually more of a horizontal promotion, doing some different work because I like it, while I am definitely not "in charge" of any people now.
I guess my point is that even picking up PM work can be a horizontal promotion.
Oftentimes PMs (or better, their organization culture + workflow) have thrown a wrench or 2 into production and caused cascading failures because they forgot a detail, or couldn't admit to fault. The culture is surely to blame amidst most of these catastrophes.
The fact that you can admit that your PM skills need work already makes you a frontrunner for being a much better PM than most.
My take is, manager positions are ripe for buck passing (to and from), collateral pressure for performance and abuse. Maybe some people can deal with that type of nonsense but the number of those who can't certainly outweigh them.
I can see how a manager might feel by this message. My thoughts are: If you're providing a great service to your underlings and your clients than you're in no position of regret. Contrarily, if you feel sick to your stomach when you go to work everyday and you're proud of that to a point of defense or fear, maybe it's time to reevaluate.
And while they may not have anyone with the job title CTO, I'd be very surprised if DHH was anything other than the de facto CTO.
I think if I already had a business of 10-15 people this would be a good model to attempt to follow. If I had a business of 40+, I would be far more wary; the question of scale is for those who may try to fit the model to their existing business.
The assumption when you publish an article is that you're doing it to provide examples to others, not just talk about how good you are. In that situation, I think it's fair to point out the limitations and areas where this strategy might not work.
However, if you want your company to grow into a Groupon or Zynga, and you have the rapidly expanding demand to support that, then you need to scale. I don't think Groupon could run on 26 people, so they needed to scale to get to such massive revenue figures.
I specifically didn't use Facebook as an example because I know your feelings about them. I figured Groupon at least has the revenue to support their valuation :)
You can't "want" your company into becoming a Groupon or a Zynga by design a certain organizational structure. Startups try that all the time by preemptively hiring tons of people to sit around and wait for the hockey stick growth that never comes.
Well let me ask you this. When is it the right time to reorganize and evolve from the flat structure because you are growing like gang-busters and can't keep up with the pressure on all areas of the company (support, development, sales, etc.)
Their industrial democracy approach has scaled quite well, with 3000 employees.
I think the biggest reason most companies don't recreate Semco's example is that nobody wants to think of themselves as expendable, especially people who can decide whether they're expendable or not, as the top management positions of a company are in a position to do so.
By saying "yes, our employees can make these decisions without us, we just have to give them the structure and support to do so", people at the top are admitting that they're not as important as our society tells them they are.
In Semco's case, Ricardo Semler was happy to admit that, because he felt the stress of running the business was killing him, and he welcomed the idea. A lot of people in his position would take anti-anxiety medication and something for acid reflux, and keep going, convinced that their position holding the reins is indispensable.
Also, more pragmatically, how realistic is it to have 30 direct reports?
It's "unrealistic" because there are social realities that exist outside of the valley and tech blogs. It's true that it's a good company, and it's true that it's a darling company here, but there will be sectors that haven't heard of these kinds of places.
And, again, once you hit something of size, some delineation
is a necessity. You don't have to model the Marine Corps, but when you have 30 people arguing over something, the buck has to stop somewhere.
The buck always stops somewhere. Whether you're two people or three people. At 37signals, the buck stops with Jason and me. Now it happens to be that when you employ smart craftsmen and women who care about what they do, there's very few loose bucks to stop.
Employers that worry about this are rather silly. I'd hire a candidate even if he was starring in said porn productions.
Maybe it's just a scarcity mentality thing; they're worried about turning off potential employers, but when you're constantly getting contacted by recruiters I guess it's hard to feel like it's a disadvantage.
But give them an opportunity to serve as team lead on a successful project or several, and you've got plenty of resume mojo to spread around to everyone.
I think this is very naive of him, and a little selfish. He's enjoying the title of "President" which, to me, is a purely managerial position. I doubt if he considers himself useless, but he's happy to label other managers useless. I might be wrong, but it seems that he's either too selfish to see other people take away some of his control or he's afraid to tackle the problem of a growing company. Both of these will have negative consequences in the future.
Just for the record, over my 14+ years in a technical field, I have been a manager for 5+, and have given up that title twice before to focus on more technical work.
I doubt that what he does in that position is purely managerial. I think you may have a hard time seeing why they value what they do if you impose your own viewpoints on them.
In my opinion, it will be impossible to have 200 employees with a flat structure.
I think the misconception with the article is that the title (and focus) is "Why I run a Flat Company" as if this should be the standard for modern business. This works for 37signals, because (1) you have actively chosen to grow very slowly when you could have otherwise grown much faster and (2) you've had the fortune and ability to attract some very good people. Many businesses don't desire to do number 1 and find it very hard to do number 2.
Re: design. Yes, I design. It's the primary thing I do. Design, sketch, work on product simplification, design/think about user experience, etc. DHH still codes as well (he's working on some nice enhancements to Highrise right now, in fact). Both David and I would prefer to design and code all day, but it's not always possible. Lately it's been more possible so we've bee doing it more often.
I apologize if I got things wrong. I was just going with whatever is here: http://37signals.com/about
"Jason Fried is the co-founder and President of 37signals."
"Jason co-wrote all of 37signals books, and is invited to speak around the world on entrepreneurship, design, management, and software."
with that kind of workload, I assumed you wouldn't have enough time for anything else. I never said whatever you do is useless. Far from it. Non-technical work that is focused at growing a company is more important than any technical work. After all, what can you do with an insanely great product that you can't sell because you didn't prepare for it properly?
Re: speaking. Not speaking anymore. Really enjoying getting back to product design.
As the organization grows, i can't see a totally flat structure working - you're going to end up with people who have been there 5 years, wake up one day and realize they have the same role and similar salary to what they had where they started, realize they have no career path with their current employer, and will move on.
1. The people who are worth the most to us are the people who do the best work. We pay accordingly. "Management-like" salaries go to the best workers.
2. You assume people want different roles. Some people do, but we work hard to hire people who love their craft and want to keep crafting. A programming being pushed away from programming, just because they've been at the company for five years, is not the desired path for most programmers who really love programming. Same goes for designing, etc.
Speaking of titles: We tend to avoid those too. We've had a good bit of debate inside the company about this, but we're sticking to staying as title-less as possible. I don't think they're worth it in the long term. They set up boundaries between people that I don't believe are necessary. Might that change if we had 100+ people? It could, but I'm concerned with the now instead of the imagined future.
It's important to set other people up for success, whether it's success at your firm or at someone else's. They're not "human resources", they're people!
Although, as many others have pointed out, there are some great examples of huge companies running similar strategies to good effect (Semco etc).
Managers and marketers get new products and changing business conditions to keep them interested, developers get new tech to explore and tech debt to resolve.
Customer service... is easy to master and once done there's no new fields to conquer. It's ultimately boring. Fine if you want a job to show up to and just do, but if you want to be interested in developing/advancing skills, it's not going to happen in customer service.
I actually find it a little insulting that the tone of the article is a little "well, the developers can handle 'not advancing', why can't the customer support person?".
The professional development tree for customer support looks like a stump.
For straight up customer service person you would be right, but I think there is a lot of room to move there in a flexible organisation. Depends on the person I guess, it doesn't surprise me really they would see more turnover here than they would of developers.
The key point is that even if you're interacting directly with the devs, you're still not really being proactive or learning concrete skills. The job is still pretty much reactive. If you're driven or feel the need to develop, there really isn't much to strive for. You're not the one that gets to figure out code, or create marketing campaigns. There's not really any ongoing feeling of "I made this!". And if you move into design/planning, that's not really support anymore.
I don't mean to rag on support - they are the ditch-diggers of the IT world - but if you're driven, then it's got nothing to offer you after a fairly short while.
The main difference between what I did, and what the rest of my team did, was that I had the added responsibility for dealing with partners and vendors, negotiating contracts, scheduling hardware installations, and the like. The rest of the team was able to remain completely focused on the system administration issues that we cared about while I split my time.
For our team, it made good sense. For the other development/design teams, the way they're run makes sense. It all depends on context.
Employees play the game (ie do the work), but I think a good manager/leader can make a big difference.
Sure, Michael Jordan was a great basketball player who had good teammates, but Phil Jackson must be doing something right in order to extract the talent out of his players in just the right way to win year in and year out. And that is hard.
Perhaps there's just not very many good coaches or managers, which is why there's such distaste for "management."
But every good team, organization, or company has a great "manager" or "managers".
In the case of 37signals, it seems that person is Jason Fried (he is the CEO).
What if "promotion" doesn't necessarily mean domain over other people, which seems to be the other issue. There can only be one SVP of Technology, for example, in most organizations.
What if, like in school, you get "degrees" for achieving things within the organization? If you launch a major new product successfully, you achieve a "master programmer" honor, and the associated pay benefits. This doesn't necessarily give you any right to control others in the organization, but it rewards employees for stellar performance. They can then put that on their resume if they go to another company.
I would argue it is a little short-sighted to say that the company can exist in a vacuum, when every other company in the world, for the most part, operates with a title. That doesn't mean you have to play that game within the company, but you should at least accommodate employees' concerns that they work for you for 10 years, and then can never get a comparable job because it looks like they never advanced. If they stay in your good graces, it probably isn't an issue, since I'm sure you will give them a good recommendation. But if not, they could be in big trouble when they go to find a new job.
A large part of management structure in the first place is to try to insulate the organization against changes at any level. Want to replace the entire C suite and the board? No problem... business goes on as usual. With this structure, the company becomes highly dependent on the people at the very top. Any changes there might have the effect of blowing up the whole organization, because there are only a few people who are unquestionably in charge. I think there are lots of benefits from trying to reshape the corporate org chart, as I mentioned in another post, but it is also dangerous to be overly idealistic in terms of how your employees regard this structure and the risk they place on working under it. If most of them feel its appropriate, then I suppose there is no problem. However, I wouldn't automatically assume that's the case, just because they have chosen to work without a title. Also, a large part of their continued work at the firm may have to do with their relationship with you personally, which may put the long term viability of the business at risk.
Why should anyone optimize for the irrational job-hirers out there? This does not sound like a path to happiness to me. Besides I find it unlikely that the kind of person who is happy at a small company like 37s for 10 years would want to work at this hypothetical irrational company.
Without wanting to sound snide, do you look for people who want to stay in the same role forever? It surprises me that people's ambitions to branch out and take on more responsibility haven't caused this to come up before. A salary bump, more benefits, and more vacation time wouldn't help me placate my desire to learn about other skill sets.
You can easily have a big impact on all the other domains of the business even if you're just a programmer.
Hell, we just had Craig Davey switch from being a programmer to being a designer recently!
Job titles are free and it helps the employee along on their career. No, they shouldn't be inflated, but they shouldn't be held back either. Eventually the employee needs to put that job on their resume and if it looks like they were an entry level person because the Founder was a jerk about titles, it's better if the employees leave now instead of later.
The 37Signal employees:
* Like their field and want to be 'hands-on'
* Don't mind staying in the same company for 10X years.
The supposed norm:
* Prefer to advance to other positions vertically
* Like moving between companies (for challenge/change).
Makes me wonder what is the difference between the two types of personalities and how those affect the organization.
For example, is there more or less innovation in 37Signals ? Are people more ready to step up and fix/report problems outside their immediate responsibilities ?
I'd rather have a flat org (and no titles) with wildly different pay (and extreme bonuses, profit sharing, equity grants) -- rather than relatively flat pay and lots of titles (which tends to be the norm in industry).
But there are people who are content to code forever, and I wonder how they differ from people like me.
I'd say it's just the opposite. The lack of organizational hierarchy and title means that people can work outside their normal expertise more easily. Nobody is stuck in a box.
Designers pick up programming skills as their interests allow. Programmers with UI ideas can try them out. Both contribute with writing, with workflow ideas, and on customer support. We've even had people completely shift roles from programming to design.
So preaching "flat" while being a business owner sounds a little suspicious, because you are preaching everybody about flat while standing above them.
I hope 37signals is truly different (I cannot judge since I don't know crucial details), because if at some point after ten years the business is sold to a big corp, and everyone finds himself trapped below ten levels of management, without a career path, 4 day workweeks during the summers of youth will sound like a bad joke.
In all the proposals / solutions mentioned here for dealing with growth while maintaining a flat culture, this is one approach I haven't seen yet. It worked well for a Dutch consultancy firm called BSO, which reached over 6000 people in the 90's, all organised into near-independent little companies of 50-ish people each, all targeting a different market, but each with the same culture and values. The firm itself was a flat company of these little companies (called "cells"), so effectively there were just 2 to 3 layers of management.
(http://www.extent.nl/articles/entry/origins-original/ if you care about the details)
"We've experimented with promoting a few people to manager-level roles."
So they are flat, with no chief anything, but they have 'manager-level roles'? Am I missing something or is there a contradiction in his description?
Edit: Got it, 'experimented' meaning that they tried, didn't work, and they went back to flat. Thanks for the responses.
Besides that I find that even with no job titles or formal roles, people within a company tend to self-organize and take on de facto roles. The only difference is that it isn't formalized, and people who end up managing aren't being paid manager salaries or getting manager options.
Re: manager's options... We don't offer options so that's not an issue.
Past tense, too.
Despite the cocktail title, there still isn't a clear "path of authority" or anything like that. The buck stops at the partners, and the rest of us function like a meritocracy. The ones with a track record or expertise on a given topic have a respected voice, and there is always opportunity for expertise to shift or widen over time. It's that fuzzy-edged quality to the role that makes it feel experimental for me.
37 signals is amazing at marketing. Their blogs. Their books. Video Lectures. Mission statements. Guest posts.
From how the error messages are written, to customer service, to copywriting in our emails, to the cancellation process, to clarity of message, to how every single thing in each product works, it's all marketing. Marketing is everyone's responsibility. It's the sum total of everything we do.
You can clearly see this being played out within the big 4 accounting firms (I recruited for them and from them). Within the firms its extremely vertical in that progression is dictated largely by how long you stayed until you hit partnership where its strictly vacancy. Thus, you're basically looking at steady yearly promotions until you reach being a senior manager after 6-8 years within the firm.
This is where I was able to take the most senior people usually in a seasonal manner pretty easily. This is because after being a senior manager you really have only two trajectories within the firm, associate partner or partner. The AP is basically a position they created to please senior managers who sounded too old and weren't good enough to be partners. So what you generally see is 3-4 hotshot senior managers all vying for the 1 partnership position that will be available that season/year. Inevitably I'll have 3/4 partner potential senior managers leaving because they know they're better off leaving the firm and going to an industry position or worse a competitive firm. They already know the stigma of being an AP.
Thus, you don't simply see attrition at the top level, but the attrition of the very best at the top level and the rest being APs. What's worse is those guys who are the best usually have a loyal following within the firm. Well guess who gives me a call after placing that senior manager as a hiring manager where they're building a team? Now you see an attrition of even better people who you were probably underpaying at junior positions leaving the firm for better pay and better hours. The only guiding light there is you're hoping that senior manager becomes their client in the future.
Thus, you see a system where the highly vertical nature of the structure led to a culture where attrition was the norm. While it might be naive to think so, I think being a flat structure might give a better chance for the culture to shape that perception of the promotion and have them "feel" it rather than perceive it.
I read somewhere that David was originally a contractor and then became a partner, but has this occurred for any other significant contributors to the company. I'm thinking 10+ years, has a solid and respected reputation within the company, etc.
That's the hard part because it's only dealing with problems and never "great to have to call you".
I guess customer service these days is disposable and easily replaceable.
Since this topic is sort of centered around a small part of my experience, I'd love to shed some light on a couple points:
True! I started my own business! For about 7 hours of my life I didn't know what I was going to do if I couldn't bloom at 37signals, and then I told David and Jason I was starting my own company, CoSupport.us.
True: I left 37signals because I really wanted to do more support-wise, and the needs of the company didn't mesh with my ideas. They need people full-time on support, they don't need someone who's not there responding to tickets. After 4 years of answering 100+ emails a day, I wanted to do other things. Needing me on tickets interacting with customers is what Jason means when he says they can't have people working on a team not doing the work of the team.
True: David and Jason may sometimes come off a bit stiff, perhaps even cold, when it comes to how they manage their business, but that's the unfortunate aspect of print, edits, etc. In truth, working for them was the most challenging, educational, inspirational time of my career so far. They are the opposite of cold when it comes to their employee's ambition, ideas, talent and goals.
True: My experience leaving was equivalent to a professional football player saying to his coach, "Hey I think I want to try being a referee!" The player isn't on the team to be a referee. If he wants to be a referee, he needs to go to referee school and become a referee, not say, "I'm going to stay on the football team and be a referee, too." That's not how it works in football, or at 37signals.
False: I was not at all "rewarded" for my ambition by being shut down, put down, held down, or in any way shuttered by David or Jason. I was rewarded by them telling me I had too much ambition to be contained there, and by them supporting my new company as best they can.
False: I actually did my first job for 37signals in 2005, and started full-time in March 2007. So a little more than "just about 3 years."
The only bad thing I have to say about 37signals or their management or my leaving is that they stole my frog, which you can ask Jason Fried about.
But I still think you got a raw deal no matter how they spin it and I firmly believe in the back of their minds you were always flagged as "disposable" (replaceable) if necessary. I've seen it over and over again over the years.