Sunday, March 09, 2008

You Build 16 Stubs, What Do You Get?

Ironically, while I was enjoying a lovely three-day weekend in Vegas, the Internet got angry with my boss for working me too hard.

Now, don't me wrong. I work hard for the money. So much so, in fact, that people occasionally treat me right.

It all started when Jason, the CEO of Mahalo, wrote this post discussing some of the principles he has employed in running the company. I would say this post very accurately reflects the culture at Mahalo.

Buy second monitors for everyone, they will save at least 30 minutes a day, which is 100 hours a year... which is at least $2,000 a year.... which is $6,000 over three years. A second monitor cost $300-500 depending on which one you get. That means you're getting 10-20x return on your investment... and you've got a happy team member.

I have three monitors at work. It's like starring in my own Michael Bay film. "Abort! Abort! Get 'em outta there!"

Buy cheap tables and expensive chairs. Tables are a complete rip off. We buy stainless steel restaurant tables that are $100 and $600 Areon chairs.

We do have excellent chairs.

Here's the segment that got controversial:

Fire people who are not workaholics. don't love their work... come on folks, this is startup life, it's not a game. don't work at a startup if you're not into it--go work at the post office or stabucks if you're not into it you want balance in your life. For realz.

The strikethroughs are in the original. Jason changed the language after the strong Internet reaction. I'm really not clear as to why "it's not a game" is crossed out, though. Mahalo is no game - we're all busting our ass around there. There's no playtime on this guy's watch.

As for the stuff about "balance" in one's life, I have two responses:

(1) It's entirely possible to work at Mahalo and still have some kind of balance in your life. Many Mahalo guides and developers have strong passions outside of work - there are numerous authors, screenwriters, musicians, athletes, bloggers, podcasters, actors, even feature film directors. Numerous guides and developers are married; some have children. Sounds like balance to me. Oh, but they work hard for a guy with high expectations, so that doesn't count as having a life. Now, going to tech industry conferences every weekend...THAT'S LIVING! WOOOOO-EEEEEEE!

(2) Jason was right the first time. Balance is overrated. Obsessiveness is not rewarded nearly enough in this world. The only way to get truly amazingly good at something is to obsess over it. There are things in this world that rely heavily on natural ability and can't be achieved through extensive experience, practice or investigation...but not too many.

When I worked at Laser Blazer, I would estimate that I watched, on average, 1 movie I had never seen before each day. Some days, I would watch movies at work, then come home and watch 2 or 3 more movies. That's obsessive behavior. But I bet I know more about movies than you, unless you have also kept up a regimen like this for an extended period of time.

Not everyone's personality works this way. Some people need to focus for 6-8 hours and then get the hell away and focus elsewhere. I get that. They should just find a job that fits this lifestyle and rhythm. Mahalo is so not that job. If I didn't enjoy it, I wouldn't be able to work there. If my post-production job had required this level of dedication, I would have quit inside a week. (Wisely, they worked me just hard enough to dampen my spirits and keep me quiet for 3 years, but not so hard that I'd actually come to my senses and quit. My revenge was not really giving a shit and sometimes getting drunk at lunch.)

But these days, I care about what I'm doing and I enjoy my job, so I get obsessive about it, because that's just how I am. It's not really about the salary.

Some of the responses to Jason's post were, in my mind, ludicrously naive. Most ludicrous? This one from 37signals titled "Fire the Workaholics." Good luck with all that...

People who are workaholics are likely to attempt to fix problems by throwing sheer hours at the problem. If you’re dealing with people working with anything creatively that’s a deadbeat way to get great work done.

Time and concentrated effort won't necessarily solve every problem alone...but you've got to admit that it really helps, right? Perhaps this is why, immediately after a homicide has happened, they start scouring the crime scene and questioning witnesses rather than, say, catching up on last week's "House." Building a company from scratch takes a lot of work, and that means a lot of hours. If you have someone who's passionate enough about the job to work long hours for you solving're gonna tell me that's a bad thing, because they're not being creative enough?

If all you do is work, your value judgements [sic] are unlikely to be sound. Making good calls on “is it worth it?” is absolutely critical to great work. Missing out on life in general to put more hours in at the office screams “misguided values”.

I fail to see how working hard and utilizing good judgment are mutually exclusive.

But still, just for the sake of argument, let's consider a scenario: Two employees both come up with the same idea and the boss hates it. "That's a terrible idea!" the hypothetical boss who is absolutely not based on any real boss says. So one employee goes, "Crap, he didn't like my idea, what a big meanie" and goes home while the other hangs out for 4 hours trying to improve his or her idea. You're telling me the latter employee has "misguided values"? Isn't this usually called "trying"? Or "giving a shit"?

Working with interesting people is more interesting than just working. If all you got going for your life is work, work, work, the good team-gelling lunches are going to be some pretty boring straight shop talk. Yawn. I’d much rather hear more about your whittling project, your last trek, how your garden is doing, or when you’ll get your flight certificate.

You'd rather your employees talk about goddamn whittling than the vital task at hand? REALLY? I mean, there's no need to be a Nazi, and I think it's fine to allow people to be people and to gab occasionally during the day (and Mahalo, like all workplaces, has its share of socializing, and more of its fair share of Rick Rolling). But it's not a bad thing if a lot of people who work on a big project want to talk about the project. We can talk about what books we're enjoying on GoodReads and go see monster movies on opening night, but that's hardly the top priority.

I mean, regardless of what you personally think of Mahalo, the fact is that the people who work on it believe in what we're doing. So once you start from that assumption, not wanting to take 2 hour coffee breaks to discuss whittling makes more sense. (Not that it doesn't sound riveting.)

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