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Corner Office: Dennis Crowley (nytimes.com)
132 points by topherjaynes on July 29, 2012 | hide | past | web | favorite | 35 comments

I'm an engineering intern at Foursquare. The culture Dennis describes is accurate.

Dennis holds weekly office hours where anyone at the company can meet up with him and ask questions or voice concerns. In my first month, I met with him a couple times and asked him questions about how he raised capital, his relationships with investors, and his experience with startups. After our first meeting, he let me know that I could grab coffee with him anytime. Foursquare really seems like a small startup despite there being 120 employees.

In response to some questions below about how snippets work, it is not necessary to read the entire company's snippets. It is a Twitter model where you subscribe to people's feeds. I'm following the exec team, my manager and other guys on the web-client team, and a couple of my other friends.

I saw that some comments about wanting to work for Foursquare, and I just thought I'd leave a reminder that we're hiring =) https://foursquare.com/jobs/

Q. Other things you’ve learned?

A. The importance of overcommunicating.

Funny... I've had a friend who's been marked down at multiple companies for 'overcommunicating' - things like reiterating the todo list from a meeting out to everyone, and including people who couldn't be there but would be impacted, emailing a group with a question and to make sure everyone understands what the impact of XYZ will be. Most people hated it. Well, I was fine with it - I think there should be more of it, and I don't think most people really grok that in knowledge work, that's all you've got - communication. Making assumptions or ignoring/forgetting to notify some parties of XYZ have huge ramifications.

There is overcommunicating and then there is noise. Getting the difference right is what successful overcommunication is about

One can possibly indicate in this case it was 'noise', but constructive feedback on things like "we don't need to know about X, but we do need to know about Y" would be helpful.

"Quit sending so many emails!" is about all he'd generally get. In at least one case, I suspect it was more about control of information than anything else - when too much info gets to too many people, it's harder to claim plausible deniability.

"Quit sending so many emails!" means he was sending too many emails to people who didn't want them. If every message had value to everyone receiving them, nobody would complain. An unattainable standard. without erring on the side of not sending useful stuff, but you have a decent margin where people will ignore your noise because your signal is valuable. Nobody complains about spam for things they end up buying.

CC'ing a group "just to keep everyone in the loop" is overcommunication. Pulling out the details that are useful for the whole group, if any, and then sending followups with additional details to a subset of people is the effective way to do it. It's a lot of work and it's why so many people who effortlessly handle in-person communication have trouble with written/broadcast patterns, they just aren't used to putting the extra work in.

In my experience, emails from people like this turn into those "Are you sure you want to exit without saving?" pop-up dialogs: if I get them too often, I start ignoring all of them, including the important ones.

What's worse, in my experience, is when people are unable to provide the necessary information, even when questioned directly, because they don't understand or appreciate the assumptions they've been making.

I find it somewhat sloppy when journalists simply publish the Q&A transcript of an interview.

What I'm going to miss the most when real journalists aren't around anymore are the long-form articles and profiles that obviously took care and several interviews to craft. For example, the recently HN-featured profile of Jack Dorsey by Wired's Steven Levy[1]:

But our discussion is sidetracked when the proprietor, Vincent Fung, starts a long and complicated explanation of the various tea options. Dorsey—like Jobs—is interested in Eastern thought, and after listening to a detailed rundown of the exotic choices, he approves Fung’s suggestion to try a dark and musty chunk of Pu-erh tea from China’s Yunnan Province. A few minutes later, Fung appears at the booth with a deep wooden tray and begins a carefully choreographed ceremony, pouring a continuous stream of hot water over tiny cups. Then he pours water on top of a lid that partially covers the bowl containing densely packed cakes of tea. Dorsey watches the ritual and appreciatively touches his finger to a worn corner of the tray.

This is how an in-person interview is meant to be conveyed to the reader… not as a transcript.

1: http://www.wired.com/business/2012/06/ff_dorsey/

This is absolutely not a simple Q&A transcript being dumped online, I assure you.

You have no idea how much work goes into something like this.

See the disclaimer at the top where it says the interview was condensed? A lot of information is hiding behind that disclaimer.

That means that to get these 7 good questions, the writer might easily have asked 21 questions.

That means that where you are reading 1-3 paragraph answers, the original answer was easily 10 paragraphs, because people tend to ramble when you ask them about their jobs, even when they're NOT being interview by the NYT. (Here's an experiment for you: Ask a friend or colleague one of those questions, do not interrupt them, in fact appear very interested, and count how many minutes the answer takes to unspool.)

That means that when you're reading a nice orderly progression of thoughts, the writer probably had to take bits and pieces from different answers because the interviewee thought of something later to append to the original answer, or emailed a clarification later, or reminded himself of something.

That means when you don't see words like "uh" and "um" and "like" and "I mean" and "I think" and "you know?", and when you don't see sentences that trail off into nothingness, and when you don't see run-on sentences, and when you don't see non sequiturs, that's because the writer has carefully removed them.

That means the writer doesn't mention that it took three hours, easily, to transcribe a 45 minute sit down, and more time for the follow up to clarify and fact check words that were mumbled or inaudible and not in the notes.

You don't want to call something like this "sloppy" unless you know what actually goes into it. You know how non-programmers often assume that very simple, easy-to-use software was similarly easy to make? How they don't think about the edge conditions that turn something that SEEMS like an easy two-week project into a three month project (http://www.joelonsoftware.com/articles/fog0000000356.html)? You know how people around here are always saying that non technical people make bad tech CEOs because they don't understand the inherent and often hidden challenges of writing code? Well, other fields are like that too, including journalism.

(Disclaimer, I write these sorts of Q&As myself.)

You are absolutely correct, but the one thing you've failed to mention is that Steven Levy is one of the best technology writers of all time.

I got to see this process first-hand when he covered Weebly for Newsweek. (http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2007/05/20/meet-the-ne...).

It was an absolutely incredible experience. You met with the guy a few times, talked with him pretty openly about what you're doing, and he magically weaved a captivating story line out of it -- making everything sound way more interesting than you could ever hope to make yourself sound.

I'm sure there are a decreasing number of long-form journalists who take the time to research their story, but it's also worth noting that there just aren't that many journalists as talented as Steven Levy.

The transcript of questions is the format of this weekly column in the Sunday Business Section and has been so since 2009. http://projects.nytimes.com/corner-office/ Look back through the older ones and it's actually a really good format for this sort of "what have you learned" from CEO's.

Interviews are seriously hard to do, just so that's clear. There are so many factors to complicate the matter it's not even funny.

It's always funny when someone goes all New Journalism and stuff, but it's not always preferable. I liked the no-nonsense format for the interview in this particular case - as, no disrespect to Foursquare, I don't really care about the founders. I do find the company itself interesting, though.

In moments like that I really wish there was a comment from a throwaway account of someone working in Foursquare telling how it looks from the side of the employees.

Hi, I'm the VP Eng @ foursquare. I'm sure my perspective is a bit different from shaufler (one of our eng interns who also commented in this thread), but I'll say that the NYTimes piece is pretty accurate. Dens is indeed quite humble, he holds open office hours every week (I've started doing the same), regularly has coffee with random employees, and he tries hard to communicate what's going well or not at our weekly company meetings.

I'm also happy to answer any questions anyone might have about foursquare culture.

i'm a site reliability engineer at foursquare sf, and i think it's very accurate. dennis travels to our office frequently and takes the time to meet with each of us individually, even those of us who work very far away from feature-land. when we're meeting i feel super comfortable saying "this sucks and we ought to fix it." mostly we discuss organizational issues; i generally air technical issues in similar meetings with harry (our eng lead, posted above,) because making engineering work is harry's whole job.

i've worked at high-profile startups with founders who are very media-visible before and dennis is pretty special in my opinion. he seems to genuinely believe that all of us employees are important to making foursquare the best product it can be.

If only "this sucks and we ought to fix it" were not so pervasively condemned in US business culture, it would be much more pleasant to work in; and there are a lot of things which wouldn't be so broken.

similarly, engineers who won't criticize or endure criticism of their own work are seriously poisonous for a company.

I have talked to a fair number of Foursquare employees, and know a few others from outside Foursquare. It really seems like one of the less dysfunctional tech companies, and a bit smaller than I thought.

The only negative anyone ever mentioned isn't really a secret, and some people consider it a positive. They have always been pretty open about not wanting to sell the company, which might be great (Facebook was the same way), and is fine if you already have money, but reduces the chances your equity will be worth $100k to $1mm or so; it may increase the expected value (due to a lower probability but huge success event). It does mean the company is less likely to get bought by a company which marginalizes the product and team, too.

Foursquare is small enough (like many other startups) that any reasonably detailed description will probably not be very anonymous at all.

Wow, I want to work at Foursquare!

These are such great ideas. I get jealous when I see articles like this as I have never had the privilege of working in such an environment. Of course as the company gets bigger it is going to be tough stopping fiefdoms and silos but they are surely on the right track.

Are you a programmer? Have a resume I can look at? harryh [at] foursquare.com

From my experience, his tips are very practical. In particular, if any of you end are founders / leaders or end up being founders / leaders, I can't overemphasize how important it is to communicate and repeat your message, strategy, goals, etc. As an organization gets larger, unless you're bored of your message yourself, it probably hasn't sunk in for others.

Snippets are such a simple but powerful idea. Has anyone open sourced a project or created a SaaS tool for this idea? I would love to implement this within my organization.

Here's the code we use to run the snippets system at foursquare:


This is awesome. As an ex-Googler at a startup, I've been wanting to re-implement OSS snippets for a while now. Checking it out!

You may want to look into iDoneThis: https://idonethis.com/

Disclaimer: I'm friends with the founders.

When you have 5 employees, maybe. If they are good at being really condensed and writing clearly.

When you have 20? 100? 1000? The number of snippets one has to read goes up linearly as the company expands for each employee. That means that waste goes up geometrically for the entire company.

And forcing each employee to read from a few select people will never scale either. Soon you will want to add the head of research and then the head of HR (or just the HR guy, if you only have one) so that you can tap into everybodies network for recruits.

For a small company: create alias for everyone. Everyone emails on Friday.

For a large company: create team alias, email it on Fridays.

Not that hard.

Snippets at Google had one other really useful tool when you're a large company.

You could subscribe to a keyword, and pick up any snippets that mentioned it.

As someone who was running a service that could get in the way of engineers doing their job, this was a great way to get honest, grassroots info.

I didn't know that. Wasn't obvious from the interface. (I just emailed snippets.)

I would think that services that provide organizational or team newsfeeds, like Yammer or Status.Net, provide very similar functionality (though perhaps without the synchronized weekly fomratting).

One of the smartest interview pieces I've read in a long time. I don't think you can ever over-estimate the benefit of forcing seemingly non-functionally aligned people to sit next to each other. Forcing your enterprise to build social connections is analogous to neurons forming new paths as a novel skill is mastered.

Foursquare is not useful though. I don't know anyone who really uses it actively.

The core checkin functionality is "fun", but not useless, and has a really awesome side effect: Foursquare explore. Seeing where my friends have checked in is a better way to find new restaurants and other businesses than anything else right now. Yelp should be useful for this, but for a variety of reasons, is not.

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