22 April 2013 by Published in: rants 1 comment

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Every good story has a protagonist.  And if you are writing or reading a story, whether it is a news story or a work of fiction, one of the important questions is “who’s the protagonist”?  Who is our noble warrior, our leading player, our principal hero?

In Western news stories, the protagonist is often a company.  Articles are published with headlines like “Will Microsoft blink?”  People online write comments about how “Microsoft acts like X” or “Nintendo insists on Y”.  “How much are Samsung’s dirty tricks hurting Apple’s shares?”  Not content with just one protagonist, the author has offered us two; or perhaps a protagonist and an antagonist.  Will the mighty Samsung finally unseat the kingdom of Apple?  (Waiting for the revisionist sequel to the article from John Gruber.)

I think our culture’s desire to tell stories with companies as protagonists is not a good one.

A story of people

A lot of people have written about the history of Apple.  The jist of it is: they were doing well at the beginning, not so well in the middle, and very well at the end.  I guess the archetype here is that of the “comeback kid”, the standard Hero’s Journey.  We have the Call to Adventure, the Supernatural Aid from Wozniak’s early genius, the Threshold with Jobs’ ouster, the Challenges and Temptations with complicating the product line, the Atonement with the re-hiring of Jobs, and finally the Return to its rightful place dominating an entirely different industry than the one before.  I think that’s the plot.

But it’s not a very good plot.  For one thing, it encourages ordinary people to cling fast to the dying ship, because perhaps it will turn around.  But as far as I know, no other company has ever turned around; and there are graveyards full of those who’ve tried: Sun, SCO, Palm, Atari, Netscape, RealNetworks… really the best possible outcome is a slow fade into obsolescence: the path of IBM, Oracle, Microsoft, etc.

Instead, let’s tell a different story that covers the same ground: the story of Steve Jobs.  Steve started a computer company that became wildly successful.  Until one day he was kicked out.  He became depressed, started traveling overseas, and abandoned his family.  He founded a new company that failed to achieve commercial success.  And then, in the span of a few weeks, he sold his company for a profit and was invited back to Apple.  Like Dorothy, he had the power inside him all long.

Or, we could tell the story of John Sculley: the one-hit wonder with a billion dollar idea.  Sculley started the Cola Wars and turned Pepsi into a household name.  Empowered by his success, he was given the keys to the kingdom at Apple.  When he tried the same thing in the computer market–it didn’t work.  He was the person who would evaluate Jobs’ plans at early stages and cut funding.  Whose idea of leadership was to hand out his autobiography to every employee.  Who was finally fired by Apple, and now serves on the board of directors for a long list of companies you’ve never heard of, many of which have since filed for Chapter 11.  Perhaps he should have stuck to marketing.

Or, we could tell the story of Wozniak: the forgotten founder.  When Jobs decided started to screw the early employees out of their stock options, Wozniak gave away over a third of his own fortune under something called the “Woz Plan” to reward Apple employees under the table.  Screwed himself by Jobs multiple times, Wozniak decided not to judge him based on “these encroachments on personal decency or personal honesty with other people” but instead based on “the good that he does for the world”.    Maybe the moral here is to be the change that you want in the world.

These are all great stories.  They are rich, three-dimensional, complex narratives.  The story about Apple as the conqueror just isn’t.

The trouble with corporate protagonists

People sometimes paint America as an individualist society, in contrast to other societies which are more communal or collectivist.  But I think we are very collectivist when it comes to talking about companies, and corporate culture.  And I believe this is bad.

Corporate stories are fundamentally disempowering.  They teach that the company is hurtling at a million miles per hour and your job is latch on for dear life and hope it all goes well.  You are the code monkey and your role is to implement the requirements that are given to you.  If you are lucky, perhaps you are king of the monkeys and can tell the other monkeys what to do.  But at any rate, the strategy is set.

What we see from the people-are-protagonist-stories is that individuals actually have a great deal of influence over their team and even the entire company–and that this situation is normal.  And if an individual cannot be successful in actualizing the change they believe is necessary, we should interpret this as a bug.  Perhaps the problem is within themselves: that they need to develop the necessary persuasive skills to achieve that change, or that they need to examine the circumstances that have led to their choice to work for a company that by definition does not see their insight as particularly valuable.

Another significant problem with the corporate-protagonist narrative is that it is feudal.  You are an employee who has pledged fealty to the fiefdom of Microsoft, and their responsibility is to protect you against the danger of having no health insurance (which is probably the only significant threat today’s software developer faces).  And this feudalism encourages a particular power imbalance–how many times have you heard “this is our standard paperwork” or “we can’t negotiate on this”?  There are some things that are legitimately non-negotiable, but you have non-negotiable points on both sides.  The narrative sets up the idea that there is an offer and an acceptance (or not), but the reality is that for software developers there is always a negotiation, whether the serfs realize this or not.

A framework for the hiring problem

I think everybody agrees that hiring developers is pretty much broken.  But the thesis that we follow companies instead of people sheds new light on the problem.

When you get an e-mail from a recruiter or an HR person: they all go the same way.  This is our company, this is what we make, this is how many employees we have, this is our last round of funding, this is what our office looks like.

These are all fine facts, but I think most of them are really only useful insofar as they are predictive about the sort of people who work there.  What are they like?  Are they religious about TDD?  Do the designers have all the power?  Did the manager enjoy The mythical man-month?  Is there a guy in the cubicle over with whom you can have a large, protracted argument about The Merits of Bitcoin and Applications to Modern Society?  Do they practice Customer Development?  Who works there that you already know?

The thing is that companies come and go, but the good developers in the talent pool remain constant.  Your focus should be on building equity in your coworkers.  It’s a much safer investment than building equity in your company.  And if you are not working somewhere that building equity in the coworkers seems particularly useful, you should consider the opportunity cost of continuing to work there.

This is essentially just the corollary to Paul Graham’s “teams over ideas” mantra for employees.  If you’re working with a great team, it doesn’t particularly matter what the company makes, most of the time, or what its office looks like, or whether it is Series A or Series J.  Whereas if you’re working with a bad team, no other fact some HR rep pulled from a press release can save it.

Also, recruiters, stop sending me e-mails.

A framework for the cofounder problem

Finding a technical cofounder these days is an intractable problem.  I am not sure that it can be made tractable.  But what I do know is that after listening to several hundred “be my cofounder” pitches, one thing stands out: they talk about the idea.    Like a PR guy writing a press release, they tell the tale of how great the product is going to be, how big of a problem it solves, and how they will ultimately triumph over the market.

The story they do not tell, unless probed (and sometimes not even then), is the story of themselves.  Tell me about your last startup, how did it go?  Tell me about your biggest failure, your biggest success.  Tell me about a problem you solved.  Tell me what you’ve learned this year.  What did you like about the thing you were doing before, and what would you like to change?  I do not know if this kind of pitch would lead to more success finding a founder, but I know this: I am more likely to listen to this story than the one about the idea.

Tell stories about people

The stories that you tell should be about people.  They can be about you.  They can be about a team of three people, and their adventures together.  But I think they need to be authentically human stories.  Every human has the capacity to be the change that they would like to see in the world, or in their working environment.  So instead of talking about how Startup X did this or Big Corporate Y missed that, let’s talk about how we have been effective or ineffective team members, about our favorite people to work with, about our successes and challenges as individuals.  Because that’s what we all are.

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  1. Koen Cornelis
    Sat 24th Aug 2013 at 2:03 pm

    Very insightfull post. Though it seems to me it’s about how you prefer to look at things: macro or microlevel. Macro is important, but people tend to forget that without the micro there is no macro. Ultimately: micro or people are what matters most.

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