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In his classic book Accidental Empires (http://www.amazon.com/Accidental-Empires-Silicon-Millions-Co...), Robert X. Cringely wrote that if you think of a market as an invasion beach you can think of three kinds of employees at tech companies: commandos, infantry, and police.

Commandos are people who love challenges and hate structure. They'll happily take on missions that other people think are crazy or impossible, because doing things other people think are crazy or impossible is what turns them on. They get you your critical early beachhead by swimming in at midnight with a knife in their teeth and slitting throats till morning.

Infantry are what most people are. Most people are not Rambo; crazy suicide missions don't turn them on. But at this point you have your foothold on the beach, so suicide missions are few; what you need now is lots of people to take that foothold and widen it into a big enough space to sustain yourself on indefinitely. This work is kind of a grind, so it doesn't appeal to the commandos, who start falling away looking for a new beach to storm. But it's critical for turning the company from a proof-of-concept into a real, going concern.

Eventually the fight for the beach ends, and the battle moves inland. But you still need to have some people there to maintain order, which is where the police come in. Police are even more risk-averse than infantry; they're caretakers who see their job less as expanding the market the commandos and infantry have won then as making sure it doesn't fall apart. Commandos and infantry fight to win; police fight to not lose.

All of these personality types are important at varying stages in a company's life, he writes, but the big challenge is making sure you have the right ones at the right stages, and that you manage the transitions between those stages well. A mostly-commandos startup that takes off but tries to still keep itself mostly commandos will choke on its own success. A larger company that still has growth opportunities but phases out its infantry in favor of police too early will miss those opportunities and get ground down by more aggressive competitors. A company that's grown as much as it can grow but resists bringing on police will run itself down launching futile new products that the market isn't asking for. Etc.




Simon Wardley has an alternative terminology for the same idea: Pioneers, Settlers and Town Planners (http://blog.gardeviance.org/2012/06/pioneers-settlers-and-to...).

He also posits that as organisations evolve from left to right, they still need teams in the previous states for the business to work effectively. Sometimes these are outsourced, sometimes they're not done at all.


Harlan Mills has a much better metaphor that captures how different roles match with different personality types and doesn't insist that people be fired as if the company "out grows" certain engineers. (http://javatroopers.com/Mythical_Man_Month.html#Chapter_3)

If companies outgrow anyone it's executive leadership that for whatever reason can no longer motivate and inspire their workforce.


The early stage, unless they have control, wonder why on earth they should listen to the newly hired management layer when it was them who build the damn business.

I've been in this situation before. I couldn't take direction from anyone who thought they knew what we did better than me, since I had been there from day one and saw the thing through. Also there's resentment that they're jumping on late and riding coat tails when you've already done the hard yards.

I don't think executive leadership is actually about motivating staff per-se and more about building little fortresses to further their career ends.


That seems simplistic. What I've seen is the jack-of-all-trades is necessary at the start. As things progress, another person - or multiple people - are assigned to each of those "trades".

But it's not just that it's specializing, it's that there's more accountability. If you're supposed to be adding function X to module Y, that's much different than "fight the hottest fire".

Sometimes people get fired because they insist on acting the way that things that started. From their viewpoint it's even reasonable: they haven't change, the position has.

Sometimes people recognize the situation and quit.

Being employee number 40 is quite a bit different than 400 or 40,000. Or number 4. Some people are able to negotiate the changes. Some bosses or CEOs can. A lot can't.


I have seen both sides of this. In a company run by "police" interns are often asked to do the "Commando" type work. ie: Proof of concept with no need to scale, work in other languages, etc. Well that's 99% of the real work so anyone can bang that out.

Startups on the other hand tend to think profitability and scale as some sort of fairy land they might get to after all their problems are solved, but right now they need X.


I think that what this really misses is that companies aren't necessarily monolithic entities. You need different groups of people doing different things. "Commandos" are useful as skunkworks groups, trying out completely out-of-band ideas to see what sticks. "Infantry" to take the things that do stick and develop them into something stable. "Police" to receive the hand-off and maintain oversight.

In other words, if you swap out "company" for "product", then you can use this as a lifecycle without ever actually losing the employee.


I think it really misses that business isn't actually war.

If you have a culture where everyone thinks they're either commandos, infantry, or police, it's possible you're going to have some customer relationship issues.

Who's the enemy in this model? If people don't fit, do they become traitors?

Language and metaphor matter, and IMO this is a dangerous and rather dumb metaphor.

I can understand why it's going to be popular with certain kinds of business people, especially the kind who like simple stories that make them feel more important than they really are.

But over time I think it's as likely to cause as many problems as it solves.


The enemies are entropy and your competitors. And if you fail to overcome them, you will cease to exist. The pervasive war metaphors didn't come about for no reason.


In my first write of that post, I automatically substituted "trailblazers" for "commandos". Then I realized I didn't want to figure out another metaphor.

Some sibling comment mentioned "settlers" as a metaphor, which I can get behind.


I really like this idea, and I think its generally right. However, I think its worth recognizing that people can change roles - commandos can become infantry, which can become police.

But for sure, Its important to recognize that this is what the growth pattern looks like, and does highlight that needs and roles change; if you can't or won't, you gotta go - not because you're a horrible commando, but because they only need infantry now.


Well, in that case I'm a commando and I hate everyone.


I feel like this story ignores something important, something about the market being the same in spite of changes in the company.


Exactly. There are quotes about this, maybe they seem familiar:

    Stay hungry, stay foolish
and

    Only the paranoid survive.
If your commandos are all gone, so has your competitive edge.


Off the cuff, doesn't a company being in a market change the market? Especially if they're doing well, i.e. Apple changed the smartphone market...


Just because you changed the market doesn't mean you'll stay in the market forever.




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