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Month: August 2014

How to strip off in front of your staff

Here’s a great article by my wife and cofounder, Paulina, on the topic of open cultures and her journey through the last few years, as we embraced more and more of the building blocks of open cultures in GrantTree:

I’d like to propose something radical, I’ve tried over and over again in my own office: strip off in front of your team. Do it thoroughly and from the very beginning when you start employing people. Sounds scary and unusual? It tends to be, but only up to the point when it becomes the very DNA of your company, and the benefits become so strong and so obvious, you wouldn’t even dream of running the business in a different way.

 

Sam Altman and the Internet lynching problem

This story begins with Sam Altman’s article about sexism in technology, with its strong follow-up, a reminder to investors, by YC partner and cofounder Jessica Livingston. Both make the same perfectly valid and unimpeachable point: disgusting sexist behaviour by investors is bad. I’d like to start by agreeing with this point, wholeheartedly. In fact, only a few days ago I wrote a blog post on this very topic. It’s here.

Unfortunately, sexism is one of those conversations that has a tendency to degenerate into shouting matches. The fault lies on both sides – and on neither side, actually.

Weak Man

At this point, it’s worth stepping outside of this thread for a second and reading Scott Alexander‘s excellent article about the “weak man” superweapon. It’s really great. Read it, I’ll wait.

For those who didn’t follow my instructions above, the article begins with a simple few questions:

There was an argument on Tumblr which, like so many arguments on Tumblr, was terrible. I will rephrase it just a little to make a point.

Alice said something along the lines of “I hate people who frivolously diagnose themselves with autism without knowing anything about the disorder. They should stop thinking they’re ‘so speshul’ and go see a competent doctor.”

Beth answered something along the lines of “I diagnosed myself with autism, but only after a lot of careful research. I don’t have the opportunity to go see a doctor. I think what you’re saying is overly strict and hurtful to many people with autism.”

Alice then proceeded to tell Beth she disagreed, in that special way only Tumblr users can. I believe the word “cunt” was used.

I notice two things about the exchange.

First, why did Beth take the bait? Alice said she hated people who frivolously self-diagnosed without knowing anything about the disorder. Beth clearly was not such a person. Why didn’t she just say “Yes, please continue hating these hypothetical bad people who are not me”?

Second, why did Alice take the bait? Why didn’t she just say “I think you’ll find I wasn’t talking about you?”

After much intelligent and enjoyable discussion1, it concludes:

In the example we started with, Beth chose to stand up for the people who self-diagnosed autism without careful research. This wasn’t because she considered herself a member of that category. It was because she decided that self-diagnosed autistics were going to stand or fall as a group, and if Alice succeeded in pushing her “We should dislike careless self-diagnosis” angle, then the fact that she wasn’t careless wouldn’t save her.

Alice, for her part, didn’t bother bringing up that she never accused Beth of being careless, or that Beth had no stake in the matter. She saw no point in pretending that boxing in Beth and the other careful self-diagnosers in with the careless ones wasn’t her strategy all along.

In short, if you are part of group X (or if you are just believed to be part of group X) and group X includes subgroup X1, which is not representative (and which you may dislike), then if someone attacks group X1 you find yourself with a choice of either defending group X1 (who you don’t even agree with) (option 1), or distancing X from X1 as thoroughly as you can (option 2), or being on a slippery slope that leads to group X being publicly discredited, and you along with it (option 3).

This fairly convincingly explains why men tend to react to statements like “men are rapists2 by saying “hey, wait a minute, not all men are like that.” Because it’s of course true – the majority of men are not rapists, wouldn’t dream of being rapists, abhor rapists, would cut off social ties with anyone found to be a rapist immediately, etc. But since option 1 is totally not available (rapists are indefensible) and option 3 feels intuitively like a bad choice in the long term, many men will pick option 2, and make the obviously true statement that “hey, you’re exaggerating quite a bit there, not all men are rapists”.

Which gets feminists very excited. They get to point at their feminist bingo card3 and say “oh my god, he used the ‘not all men’ argument, what a douche, I wonder what other stupid sexist patterns this guy uses.”.

Which leads to completely unproductive discussion. The ironic part is, the “not all X” argument then gets lobbed in both directions, with the reverse statement being that not all feminists are narrow-minded bingo card abusers. Both sides are thus locked in an eternal struggle till Judgement Day (which is starting to sound like a good thing in comparison).

Yes, I just summarised Scott’s arguments. I know what you’re going to say: “Not all of us readers skipped that article that you recommended reading!” There must be a blogist blogwiki entry for that meme.

Insanity

In such a climate, and having even a vague awareness of how the internet is a batshit crazy place, it’s not very surprising that an intelligent, self-aware, publicly-facing organisation is going to try to defend itself proactively.

Which brings us back to YC’s announcements. Chris Stucchio wrote a blog post in response that fairly comprehensively analyses the very loose and shoddy logic in Sam Altman’s post. In short, the post conflates various orthogonal statements that don’t really fit together in any sort of coherent argument. This poses the question of why a smart guy like Sam would write an incoherent blog post like that. Chris answers that question in a Hacker News comment that naturally got obliterated by HN users and by a high-profile member of the community since it takes an unpopular view:

YC is attempting to appease the internet bullies and avoid unwanted media attention (witness the Paul Graham sexism non-incident), not convey facts.

In context of this discussion, it shouldn’t be all that original or controversial to come to this conclusion. The internet is a crazy place. The tech scene is a prominent place on the internet. A number of high-profile tech organisations have been attacked very publicly recently (some for very obviously good reasons, some more ambiguous, some actually targeted at YC and HN itself on laughably bad premises). There is a general climate of extreme hostility in the tech scene, spearheaded by aggressive characters, often (but not always) justified in their reaction by actual behaviour. Basically, shit can erupt in any direction at any moment for valid or invalid reasons and hit a multiplicity of fans that will make for a very unpleasant few days for whoever has to clean up, and can frequently produce sufficient effect to cause founders to be kicked out of their own companies.

It’s only sensible for any prominent player in this field to make some kind of meek statements trying to convey “hey, we’re not the bad guys, we’re totally with you” whether or not that is true. In that context, Sam’s post is perfectly understandable and seems like a pretty sensible move to reduce the impact of any shit-and-fan incidents in the future.

If only…

If only it were that simple. There’s one dynamic that’s not at all covered by this. Feminists are not alone in their single-minded and aggressive pursuit of a somewhat intolerant agenda. There’s countless other groups that can be equally narrow-minded and bigoted. And based on my anecdotal observations, they all seem to be on the rise, figuring out how to be more and more effective at using online tools to organise instant lynch mobs and attack whatever target they set their sights on today.

Recently we got a first-rate and somewhat ironic explosion when Richard Dawkins, atheist extraordinaire, met feminism. It was ironic because atheists, like feminists, are themselves a group (X) that contains an X1 which is highly aggressive and narrow-minded4. When X1 met Y1, sparks ensued. Just be glad you weren’t in the middle of it.

So here’s the problem: first of all, trying to placate these groups is a losing strategy, because they are exceptionally narrow in their beliefs. If you’re not exactly on their agenda, repeating their mantras word for word, you’re a bad guy/gal/other. The second problem is that all those groups are growing in prominence5, and their agendas are mutually exclusive. So even if you do manage to placate one completely, you’ll inevitably tread on the others’ toes.

It’s not a battle anyone can win, let alone a public organisation.

So what to do?

I wish I had a grand solution to suggest, that would magisterially solve the problem in one fell swoop.

Unfortunately, this is the real world, and those solutions don’t exist. Damn.

I can, however, suggest a step in the right direction.

These *-ist movements are made of people like you and me. Some of them are very intelligent. How they get into the mindset of believing the narrow agenda of one of these groups baffles me, but it happens.

If you’ve read this far, perhaps this is a topic you’ve thought about. Perhaps sexism in tech is something that bothers you. Perhaps feminism in tech is something that bothers you. Perhaps it’s some other form of social justice that you’re thinking of fighting for (the causes are many and varied and march around the field with their big flags waving for more supporters).

Here’s the very simple thing that you personally can do to help with this: don’t join one of those movements6. If you see one of those deaf arguments going on, don’t take sides. When someone in a hostile, polarised, *-ist environment makes a legitimate comment that seems to go against the grain, think carefully before you join in kicking them.

Internet flash lynch mobs are a reality we’re going to have to deal with for the foreseeable future, but what you can do personally is at least make sure you don’t join them. Support their agenda where it makes sense, but don’t join in the crazy conversation. Don’t condone it. Don’t give it more reach than it already has, however tempting it is to jump on a hobby-horse from time to time7. Lynch mobs thrive on the fact that large groups of people grab pitchforks, join in, and help make things even bigger and louder than they were. Don’t be one of those people. Just. Stay. Out. Of. It.8

If I’ve managed to convince even a single person that was standing on the edge of an *-ist-precipice to step back cautiously and think things through, this article has achieved its goals.


  1. You really should have read through!

  2. On that note, given how rabidly @shanley tends to push the “men are rapists” agenda, I find it highly amusing that a search for “shanley men are rapists” on DuckDuckGo turns out a bunch of articles about a priest called Shanley who is indeed a rapist (and a pedophile to boot), instead of any links to @shanley’s statements.

  3. Another long article very much worth reading

  4. You know, the kind of people who reply to your casual tweet by responding with a “.” in front of your handle and thereby ccing their entire 5000-rabid-fans following into the conversation and drowning out any possible sense instantly.

  5. The “personalisation” of the web, which allows everyone to see only a world they agree with and thereby feel like their Truth is uncontradicted by any evidence, is probably helping this trend.

  6. I have very little hope of convincing anyone already ensnared in one of those movements to leave…

  7. I realise how ironic it is for me to give this advice seeing as I’ve done this very thing myself (and am doing this right now). I am but human.

  8. Unless you figure out the magisterial solution I didn’t, of course…

Company culture: an open and shut model

There are nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays,
And every single one of them is right!

Rudyard Kipling, In the Neolithic Age

How many ways can you categorise the ways that different startups organise themselves, the different flavours and colours of organisational culture adopted by companies through their life (and death). Far more than nine and sixty, I assure you. And, yes, each of them is right. Models of the world are usually helpful in making sense of the continuous chaos of reality.

I’d like to propose a very simple and useful model for startup (and, more widely, company) cultures, that I feel is relevant at this point in history: open and closed.

Hierarchical Pyramid

Closed cultures

There are a number of ways to run a closed culture, but the presence of any of the following features is usually a clear sign of an at least partially closed culture:

  • Secrecy by default: Business information is closed by default, on a need-to-know basis. Typically, only the senior management team has access to all the information (e.g. salaries and bonuses, detailed financials of the organisation, etc). These multi-layered secrets often form part and parcel of the power structure: the higher you are, the more information you have access to.
  • Top-down, hierarchical management: This can be implemented with varying degrees of flexibility, but the common element is the idea that you have a boss and you should do what they tell you. All closed cultures enable some elements of push-back from those savvy enough to know how to make their points from below, but the general mode of functioning is from the top to the bottom.
  • The Pyramid/Career Ladder: Closed organisations are without fail mapped out as pyramid-shaped: there is one CEO at the top, with a senior executive team below, and progressively wider layers as you go down. This Pyramid also provides the Career Ladder – the ever-receding MacGuffin1 that motivates people to work hard so they can one day get on top of the Pyramid and finally achieve true Success.
  • Focus on profit: The more advanced closed organisations tend to focus on profit above all2. This is measured as a number and is the primary driver of decision-making. If an action results in more profit, it’s worth doing. If the company makes more profit, it is more successful. Profit is the essential driver of all decisions. “How will it affect the bottom line?” is the main (or perhaps even only) question being asked.
  • Motivational measurements and individual incentives: Closed organisations, as they mature, learn to apply measurements as a method of ensuring performance. They will measure everything that can be measure and make up targets and projections (with varying degrees of involvement from those being measured), then hold people accountable to those estimates. Those who meet their targets are rewarded, and those who fail are punished.
  • Fixed roles and masks: In closed cultures, you are hired for a specific role. You can progress towards more managerial responsibilities through promotion, but typically, doing things outside of your role is discouraged (if only because it will step on the toes of the person who currently owns that role). In closed organisations you are your role. It’s no surprise, then, that most people put on a mask to go to work: while they are at the office, they are no longer a full person with a variety of wants and activities and aspirations, but a “Web Developer” or a “Marketing Manager”. Professional behaviour is all that’s accepted, and it’s all that’s given. 3
  • Distrust and control: A fundamental assumption of closed cultures is that people are lazy and cannot be trusted, so they need to be controlled, otherwise they will not do any work. This gives even more justification to adding more measurements and narrowly defining roles and performance criteria. When they don’t treat them like mindless cogs in a machine, closed cultures tend to treat employees like irresponsible children4.

There are countless examples of closed cultures: most of the companies and organisations in the world are run on the closed model. In fact, in many countries it is illegal to run a public company in an open way 5.  You’ve most likely worked for a closed company at some point in your life. In fact, chances are you’re working in one right now6.

Whilst closed cultures (which form the majority of business cultures today) are clearly capable of delivering great results, they have a number of deadly flaws, which I’ll cover in more detail in a later article. For now, let’s look at open cultures.

Open cultures

If there are many ways to run a closed culture, there are even more ways to run an open one7. Each open company tends to have its own way of expressing its culture. However, these are some typical commonalities by which to recognise an open culture:

  • Transparency by default: In open cultures, business information is publicly available to all employees. This includes salaries, but also bad news, strategic plans, problems, decisions, ideas, etc. People are trusted to be able to handle that information.
  • Flat hierarchy and/or self-management: If everyone knows everything and you’ve hired smart people in the right kinds of jobs, it is very difficult to maintain an arbitrary hierarchy, since everyone can contribute to any decision8. When you trust people, it is also unnecessary to set up managers whose job it is to check after them.
  • Personal development through work: When there is no career ladder, how do people achieve career progression? The obvious solution is that they take on more responsibilities without having to go “up” an arbitrary ladder. As a natural consequence of that, it is possible for people to fully express themselves in their work, by getting involved in their full range of interests, so they can achieve more personal development than they would in a narrow role with a career ladder.
  • Multiple stakeholders, values, and purpose: In open organisations, the idea of valuing profit above all others becomes obviously absurd. It’s not only shareholders, but also employees, suppliers, customers, society, and the environment, which matter. The company does not exist in a vacuum. Values become a way to express what the company cares about, rather just a motivational slogan. Along with the higher purpose of the company, they become the way that decisions get made in open cultures.
  • Team or company incentives: There is a progression from the closed culture approach of individual incentives, via team incentives, towards the eventual ideal, which is a system where base pay is determined by a combination of what the person is contributing, what the person needs, and what the company can afford, along with company-wide bonuses. Individual incentives are shunned.
  • Self-determined pay: One of the surefire signs of an open culture is when people determine their own pay. In most companies, this is unthinkable. In open cultures, it becomes a natural consequence of all the other stuff. After all, if you trust people to make all sorts of important decisions about the company, why not trust them to make this decision too?9
  • Separation of role and person: The idea that a person and their role are intrinsically bound becomes visibly stupid as the culture opens up. Eventually, it is clear that people are not their roles, but are capable of engaging in several roles simultaneously, contributing more fully to the organisation’s needs. This further enables people to accomplish themselves and to be fully themselves at work instead of wearing masks. One of the ways this is accomplished is through Open Allocation.
  • Trust: Perhaps most important is the fact that open cultures treat employees like adults, trusting them to do the right thing even in complex or ambiguous situations. There are of course processes to help people make better decisions, but the key point is that all these processes start from a perspective of trust and responsibility.

The benefits of running companies this way ought to be obvious, but in case they need to be spelled out:

  • People in open cultures are more engaged, happier, more creative, they contribute more, etc. This makes them much more fun to work in, both as a founder and as an employee, but also much more productive – people work much more effectively when they care.
  • Having a better environment makes it easier to hire great people.
  • Open cultures are way more adaptable to change. Change management is an oxymoron in an open culture: change happens constantly and continually, not through expensive, long-winded, and often failure-prone change processes.
  • Because they motivate people so much better, open cultures are, ironically, also better at achieving sustainable, long-term financial results10.

There are some examples of open cultures out there, too, to varying degrees. GrantTreeBuffer, Valve and Github, in the startup space, are known examples of open cultures. Others include Semco, Burtzorg, Happy Startup, MorningStar, and many others in all sorts of different contexts and sizes. All companies could adopt an open culture, but most don’t. Why is that?

Reinventing Organisations, by Frederic Laloux, studies a dozen or so open cultures and comes to the conclusion that two things are absolutely prerequisite for an open culture to exist for any length of time: both the CEO/Leader and the owners must be fully supportive of this (currently) unconventional way of operating. Otherwise, eventually the company hits a hard time, and either the CEO or the owners pressure it into returning to a more traditional (i.e. closed) mode of functioning. So the obvious reason why more companies are not currently open is because most CEOs are not prepared to let go of their control mindset, and when they are, the owners (whether private owners or VCs with board seats and a traditional, closed mindset, or simply public markets) frequently won’t let them.

If you’re a founder of a startup, this poses an interesting challenge: are you up to the challenge of creating an open culture in your business? Even when that involves giving up the trappings of power? Even when that involves passing on an investment round from an investor whom you know will force the company to change its ways when it hits a rough patch?

If so, welcome to the club. Follow this blog11, and I’ll do my best to share what I’ve learned in transforming GrantTree to be an open company. This is still a new field so we can all learn from each other.


  1. In fiction, a MacGuffin is a plot device in the form of some goal, desired object, or other motivator that the protagonist pursues, often with little or no narrative explanation. See Wikipedia

  2. Less advanced closed cultures are satisfied with stability

  3. Another sign of this is the internal interview: to change your role, you must go through a complex and scary process of interviewing again in the new department.

  4. This of course encourages infantile behaviour. The company then becomes paranoid about trying to keep everyone in line through more controls, which leads to more child-like behaviour, etc.

  5. For example, directors of public corporations usually have a fiduciary duty to shareholders – meaning the focus on profits above all other things is encoded in law.

  6. If not, congratulations!

  7. Part of that is probably due to the fact that open cultures are relatively new and rare, so “best practices” are still evolving

  8. Usually one of the main ways that a hierarchy maintains itself is by gaining control of information. There’s no easier way to create a power differential in a meeting than for one person to say to the other “I know something that you’re not allowed to know.”

  9. There is one reason: fear. But it’s not a good reason.

  10. For some empirical evidence, have a read through Reinventing Organizations by Frederic Laloux, which examines a dozen open organisations a number of which are doing exceptionally well in a market of closed competitors

  11. You can also sign up to receive these articles by email, on the right in the footer.

How Psychedelics saved Amber Lyon’s life

Emmy-Award-winning, former CNN investigative reporter Amber Lyon on her new site reset.me:

I invite you to take a step back and clear your mind of decades of false propaganda. Governments worldwide lied to us about the medicinal benefits of marijuana. The public has also been misled about psychedelics.

(…)

Five ceremonies with psilocybin mushrooms cured my anxiety and PTSD symptoms. The butterflies that had a constant home in my stomach have flown away.

(…)

I was blessed with an inquisitive nature and a stubbornness to always question authority. Had I opted for a doctor’s script and resigned myself in the hope that things would just get better, I never would have discovered the outer reaches of my mind and heart. Had I drunk the Kool-Aid and believed that all ‘drugs’ are evil and have no healing value, I may still be in the midst of a battle with PTSD.

Forgetting the personal development benefits of psychedelic drugs, the fact that our society does not explore their benefits to people with mental disorders is a disgrace of modern medicine and politics.

I wish Amber the best of luck in her reset.me venture. I hope it focuses on clean investigative reporting, consistently making the case for more psychedelic drug research, rather than letting itself be drowned in mysticism and superstition.

On discrimination in the tech industry

Whilst I am not one to side with dogmatic ultra-feminists, this kind of behaviour is not only reprehensible, it is disgusting and stupid:

After some small talk, he sat next to me on the couch and commented that I looked stressed. He put down his glass of wine and reached to massage my shoulders. As he slid his hands further, I made a nervous joke, quickly trying to shift my weight away from him. I leaned into the corner of the couch and crossed my legs, attempting to put an obstacle in his way. Undeterred, he continued to reach for me.

Silicon Valley may be a hotbed of technical innovation, but when it comes to social standards it seems to be pretty far backwards:

It’s not merely the men. Sometimes women help perpetuate the same tropes. Once while presenting to a group, the only female on the panel began an onslaught of questions, including “Did your daddy give you money?” “Are you old enough to drive?” and “How are you going to run up the corporate ladder in those shoes?” What was billed as a 20-minute pitch turned into a three-and-half hour inquisition.

Unfortunately, this is not even limited to Silicon Valley. This one is from a New York investor:

When she asked why, he told her. “I don’t like the way women think,” he said. “They haven’t mastered linear thinking.” To prove his point, he explained that his wife could never prioritize her to-do lists properly. And then, as if he was trying to compliment her, he told Tucker she was different. “You’re more male,” he said.

People who behave in this manner have no place in civilised society. They should be shunned just as they would be if they spouted racist jokes, joked about hitting people while drunk driving, or occasionally burst into homophobic rants. Perhaps the sad thing is that some of those people do those things as well, and still get away with it. Such is the power of money and position, still, today.

Beyond what women are already doing, i.e. patiently changing the system by becoming part of the system and then forcing it to change from within, and occasionally publicly shaming an exceptionally bad player, unfortunately there doesn’t seem much else to do. Change takes time. Deep, societal change takes more time.

Those backwards dinosaurs who still think it’s ok to beat up women or discriminate against them (or, indeed, any other minority) will die eventually. All of them. Let’s make sure no new generations are brought up in the belief that any of those behaviours are ok.

Based on the last few hundred years of history, I think we’re moving in the right direction.

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