Tech companies: open allocation is your only real option.

I wrote, about a month ago, about Valve’s policy of allowing employees to transfer freely within the company, symbolized by placing wheels under the desk (thereby creating a physical marker of their superior corporate culture that makes traditional tech perks look like toys) and expecting employees to self-organize. I’ve taken to calling this seemingly radical notion open allocation– employees have free rein to work on projects as they choose, without asking for permission or formal allocation– and I’m convinced that, despite seeming radical, open allocation is the only thing that actually works in software. There’s one exception. Some degree of closed allocation is probably necessary in the financial industry because of information barriers (mandated by regulators) and this might be why getting the best people to stay in finance is so expensive. It costs that much to keep good people in a company where open allocation isn’t the norm, and where the workflow is so explicitly directed and constrained by the “P&L” and by justifiable risk aversion. If you can afford to give engineers 20 to 40 percent raises every year and thereby compete with high-frequency-trading (HFT) hedge funds, you might be able to retain talent under closed allocation. If not, read on.

Closed allocation doesn’t work. What do I mean by “doesn’t work”? I mean that, as things currently go in the software industry, most projects fail. Either they don’t deliver any business value, or they deliver too little, or they deliver some value but exert long-term costs as legacy vampires. Most people also dislike their assigned projects and put minimal or even negative productivity into them. Good software is exceedingly rare, and not because software engineers are incompetent, but because when they’re micromanaged, they stop caring. Closed allocation and micromanagement provide an excuse for failure: I was on a shitty project with no upside. I was set up to fail. Open allocation blows that away: a person who has a low impact because he works on bad projects is making bad choices and has only himself to blame.

Closed allocation is the norm in software, and doesn’t necessarily entail micromanagement, but it creates the possibility for it, because of the extreme advantage it gives managers over engineers. An engineer’s power under closed allocation is minimal: his one bit of leverage is to change jobs, and that almost always entails changing companies. In a closed-allocation shop, project importance is determined prima facie by executives long before the first line of code is written, and formalized in magic numbers called “headcount” (even the word is medieval, so I wonder if people piss at the table, at these meetings, in order to show rank) that represent the hiring authority (read: political strength) of various internal factions. The intention of headcount numbers is supposed to be to prevent reckless hiring by the company on the whole, and that’s an important purpose, but their actual effect is to make internal mobility difficult, because most teams would rather save their headcount for possible “dream hires” who might apply from outside in the future, rather than risk a spot on an engineer with an average performance review history (which is what most engineers will have). Headcount bullshit makes it nearly impossible to transfer unless (a) someone likes you on a personal basis, or (b) you have a 90th-percentile performance review history (in which case you don’t need a transfer). Macroscopic hiring policies (limits, and sometimes freezes) are necessary to prevent the company from over-hiring, but internal headcount limits are one of the worst ideas ever. If people want to move, and the leads of those projects deem them qualified, there’s no reason not to allow this. It’s good for the engineers and for the projects that have more motivated people working on them.

When open allocation is in play, projects compete for engineers, and the result is better projects. When closed allocation is in force, engineers compete for projects, and the result is worse engineers. 

When you manage people like children, that’s what they become. Traditional, 20th-century management (so-called “Theory X”) is based on the principle that people are lazy and need to be intimidated into working hard, and that they’re unethical and need to be terrified of the consequences of stealing from the company, with a definition of “stealing” that includes “poaching” clients and talent, education on company time, and putting their career goals over the company’s objectives. In this mentality, the only way to get something decent out of a worker is to scare him by threatening to turn off his income– suddenly and without appeal. Micromanagement and Theory X are what I call the Aztec Syndrome: the belief in many companies that if there isn’t a continual indulgence in sacrifice and suffering, the sun will stop rising.

Psychologists have spent decades trying to answer the question, “Why does work suck?” The answer might be surprising. People aren’t lazy, and they like to work. Most people do not dislike the activity of working, but dislike the subordinate context (and closed allocation is all about subordination). For example, peoples’ minute-by-minute self-reported happiness tends to drop precipitously when they arrive at the office, and rise when they leave it, but it improves once they start actually working. They’re happier not to be at an office, but if they’re in an office, they’re much happier when working than when idle. (That’s why workplace “goofing off” is such a terrible idea; it does nothing for office stress and it lengthens the day.) People like work. It’s part of who we are. What they don’t like, and what enervates them, is the subordinate context and the culturally ingrained intimidation. This suggests the so-called “Theory Y” school of management, which is that people are intrinsically motivated to work hard and do good things, and that management’s role is to remove obstacles.

Closed allocation is all about intimidation: if you don’t have this project, you don’t have a job. Tight headcount policies and lockout periods make internal mobility extraordinarily difficult– much harder than getting hired at another company. The problem is that intimidation doesn’t produce creativity and it erodes peoples’ sense of ethics (when people are under duress, they feel less responsible for what they are doing). It also provides the wrong motivation: the goal becomes to avoid getting fired, rather than to produce excellent work.

Also, if the only way a company can motivate people to do a project is to threaten to turn off a person’s income, that company should really question whether that project’s worth doing at all.

Open allocation is not the same thing as “20% time”, and it isn’t a “free-for-all”. Open allocation does not mean “everyone gets to do what they want”. A better way to represent it is: “Lead, follow, or get out of the way” (and “get out of the way” means “leave the company”). To lead, you have to demonstrate that your product is of value to the business, and convince enough of your colleagues to join your project that it has enough effort behind it to succeed. If your project isn’t interesting and doesn’t have business value, you won’t be able to convince colleagues to bet their careers on it and the project won’t happen. This requires strong interpersonal skills and creativity. Your colleagues decide, voting with their feet, if you’re a leader, not “management”. If you aren’t able to lead, then you follow, until you have the skill and credibility to lead your own project. There should be no shame in following; that’s what most people will have to do, especially when starting out.

“20% time” (or hack days) should be exist as well, but that’s not what I’m talking about. Under open allocation, people are still expected to show that they’ve served the needs of the business during their “80% time”. Productivity standards are still set by the projects, but employees choose which projects (and sets of standards) they want to pursue. Employees unable to meet the standards of one project must find another one. 20% time is more open, because it entails permission to fail. If you want to do a small project with potentially high impact, or to prove that you have the ability to lead by starting a skunk-works project, or volunteer, take courses, or attend conferences on company time, that’s what it’s for. During their “80% time”, people are still expected to lead or follow on a project with some degree of sanction. They can’t just “do whatever they want”.

Four types of projects. The obvious question that open allocation raises is, “Who does the scut work?” The answer is simple: people do it if they will get promoted, formally or informally, for doing it, or if their project directly relies on it. In other words, the important but unpleasant work gets done, by people who volunteer to do it. I want to emphasize “gets done”. Under closed allocation, a lot of the unpleasant stuff never really gets done well, especially if unsexy projects don’t lead to promotions, because people are investing most of their energy into figuring out how to get to better projects. The roaches are swept under the carpet, and people plan their blame strategies months in advance.

If we classify projects into four categories by important vs. unimportant, and interesting vs. unpleasant, we can assess what happens under open allocation. Important and interesting projects are never hard to staff. Unimportant but interesting projects are for 20% time; they might succeed, and become important later, but they aren’t seen as critical until they’re proven to have real business value, so people are allowed to work on them but are strongly encouraged to also find and concentrate on work that’s important to the business. Important but unpleasant projects are rewarded with bonuses, promotions, and the increased credibility accorded to those who do undesirable but critical work. These bonuses should be substantial (six and occasionally even seven figures for critical legacy rescues); if the project is actually important, it’s worth it to actually pay. If it’s not, then don’t spend the money. Unimportant and unpleasant projects, under open allocation, don’t get done. That’s how it should be. This is the class of undesirable, “death march” projects that closed-allocation nurtures (they never go away, because to suggest they aren’t worth doing is an affront to the manager that sponsors them and a career-ending move) but that open allocation eliminates. Under open allocation, people who transfer away from these death marches aren’t “deserters”. It’s management’s fault if, out of a whole company, no one wants to work on the project. Either the project’s not important, or they didn’t provide enough enticement.

Closed allocation is irreducibly political. Compare two meanings of the three-word phrase, “I’m on it”. In an open-allocation shop, “I’m on it” is a promise to complete a task, or at least to try to do it. It means, “I’ve got this.” In a closed-allocation shop, “I’m on it” means “political forces outside of my control require me to work only on this project.”

People complain about the politics at their closed-allocation jobs, but they shouldn’t, because it’s inevitable that politics will eclipse the matter of actually getting work done. It happens every time, like clockwork. The metagame becomes a million times more important than actually sharpening pencils or writing code. If you have closed allocation, you’ll have a political rat’s nest. There’s no way to avoid it. In closed allocation, the stakes of project allocation are so high that people are going to calculate every move based on future mobility. Hence, politics. What tends to happen is that a four-class system emerges, resulting from the four categories of work that I developed above. The most established engineers, who have the autonomy and leverage to demand the best projects, end up in the “interesting and important” category. They get good projects the old-fashioned way: proving that they’re valuable to the company, then threatening to leave if they aren’t reassigned. Engineers who are looking for promotions into managerial roles tend to take on the unpleasant but important work, and attempt to coerce new and captive employees into doing the legwork. The upper-middle class of engineers can take the interesting but unimportant work, but it tends to slow their careers if they intend to stay at the same company (they learn a lot, but they don’t build internal credibility). The majority and the rest, who have no significant authority over what they work on, get a mix, but a lot of them get stuck with the uninteresting, unimportant work (and closed-allocation shops generate tons of that stuff) that exists for reasons rooted in managerial politics.

What are the problems with open allocation? The main issue with open allocation is that it seems harder to manage, because it requires managers to actively motivate people to do the important but unpleasant work. In closed allocation, people are told to do work “because I said so”. Either they do it, or they quit, or they get fired. It’s binary, which seems simple. There’s no appeal process when people fail projects or projects fail people– and no one ever knows which happened– and extra-hierarchical collaboration is “trimmed”, and efforts can be tracked by people who think a single spreadsheet can capture everything important about what is happening in the company. Closed-allocation shops have hierarchy and clear chains of command, and single-points-of-failure (because a person can be fired from a whole company for disagreeing with one manager) out the proverbial wazoo. They’re Soviet-style command economies that somehow ended up being implemented within supposedly “capitalist” companies, but they “appear” simple to manage, and that’s why they’re popular. The problem with closed allocation policies is that they lead to enormous project failure rates, inefficient allocation of time, talent bleeds, and unnecessary terminations. In the long term, all of this unplanned and surprising garbage work makes the manager’s job harder, more complex, and worse. When assessing the problems associated with open allocation (such as increased managerial complexity) it’s important to consider that the alternative is much worse.

How do you do it? The challenging part of open allocation is enticing people to do unpleasant projects. There needs to be a reward. Make the bounty too high, and people come in with the wrong motivations (capturing the outsized reward, rather than getting a fair reward while helping the company) and the perverse incentives can even lead to “rat farming” (creating messes in the hopes of being asked to repair them at a premium). Make it too low, and no one will do it, because no one wise likes a company well enough to risk her own career on a loser project (and part of what makes a bad project bad is that, absent recognition, it’s career-negative to do undesirable work). Make the reward too monetary and it looks bad on the balance sheet, and gossip is a risk: people will talk if they find out a 27-year-old was paid $800,00o in stock options (note: there had better be vesting applied) even if it’s justified in light of the legacy dragon being slain. Make it too career-focused and you have people getting promotions they might not deserve, because doing unpleasant work doesn’t necessarily give a person technical authority in all areas. It’s hard to get the carrot right. The appeal of closed allocation is that the stick is a much simpler tool: do this shit or I’ll fire you.

The project has to be “packaged”. It can’t be all unpleasant and menial work, and it needs to be structured to involve some of the leadership and architectural tasks necessary for the person completing it to actually deserve the promised promotion. It’s not “we’ll promote you because you did something grungy” but “if you can get together a team to do this, you’ll all get big bonuses, and you’ll get a promotion for leading it.” Management also needs to have technical insight on hand in order to do this: rather than doing grunt work as a recurring cost, kill it forever with automation.

An important notion in all this is that of a committed project. Effectively, this is what the executives should create if they spot a quantum of work that the business needs but that is difficult and does not seem to be enjoyable in the estimation of the engineers. These shouldn’t be created lightly. Substantial cash and stock bonuses (vested, over the expected duration of the project) and promotions are associated with completing these projects, and if more than 25% of the workload is committed projects, something’s being done wrong. A committed project offers high visibility (it’s damn important; we need this thing) and graduation into a leadership role. No one is “assigned” to a committed project. People “step up” and work on them because of the rewards. If you agree to work on a committed project, you’re expected to make a good-faith effort to see it through for an agreed-upon period of time (typically, a year). You do it no matter how bad it gets (unless you’re incapable) because that’s what leadership is. You should not “flake out” because you get bored. Your reputation is on the line.

Companies often delegate the important but undesirable work in an awkward way. The manager gets a certain credibility for taking on a grungy project, because he’s usually at a level where he has basic autonomy over his work and what kinds of projects he manages. If he can motivate a team to accomplish it, he gets a lot of credit for taking on the gnarly task. The workers, under closed allocation, get zilch. They were just doing their jobs. The consequence of this is that a lot of bodies end up buried by people who are showing just enough presence to remain in good standing, but putting the bulk of their effort into moving to something better. Usually, it’s new hires without leverage who get staffed on these bad projects.

I’d take a different approach to committed projects. Working on one requires (as the name implies) commitment. You shouldn’t flake out because something more attractive comes along. So only people who’ve proven themselves solid and reliable should be working on (much less leading) them. To work on one (beyond a 20%-time basis) you have to have been at the company for at least a year, senior enough for the leadership to believe that you have the ability to deliver, and in strong standing at the company. Unless hired at senior roles, I’d never let a junior hire take on a committed project unless it was absolutely required– too much risk.

How do you fire people? When I was in school, I enjoyed designing and playing with role-playing systems. Modeling a fantasy world is a lot of fun. Once I developed an elaborate health mechanic that differentiated fatigue, injury, pain, blood loss, and “magic fatigue” (which affected magic users) and aggregated them (determining attribute reductions and eventual incapacitation) in what I considered to be a novel way. One small detail I didn’t include was death, so the first question I got was, “How do you die?” Of course, blood loss and injuries could do it. In a no-magic, medieval world, loss of the head is an incapacitating and irreversible injury, and exsanguination is likewise. However, in a high-magic world, “death” is reversible. Getting roasted, eaten and digested by a dragon might be reversible. But there has to be a possibility (though it doesn’t require a dedicated game mechanic) for a character to actually die in the permanent, create-a-new-character sense of the word. Otherwise there’s no sense of risk in the game: it’s just rolling dice to see how fast you level up. My answer was to leave that decision to the GM. In horror campaigns, senseless death (and better yet, senseless insanity) is part of the environment. It’s a world in which everything is trying to kill you and random shit can end your quest. But in high-fantasy campaigns with magic and cinematic storylines, I’m averse to characters being “killed by the dice”. If the character is at the end of his story arc, or does something inane like putting his head in a dragon’s mouth because he’s level 27 and “can’t be killed”, then he dies for real. Not “0 hit points”, but the end of his earthly existence. But he shouldn’t die because the player is hapless enough to roll 4 “1”s in a row on a d10. Shit happens.

The major problem with “rank and yank” (stack-ranking with enforced culling rates) and especially closed allocation is that a lot of potentially great employees are killed by the dice. It becomes part of the rhythm of the company for good people to get inappropriate projects or unfair reviews, blow up mailing lists or otherwise damage morale when it pisses them off, then get fired or quit in a huff. Yawn… another one did that this week. As I alluded in my Valve essay, this is the Welch Effect: the ones who get fired under rank-and-yank policies are rarely low performers, but junior members of macroscopically underperforming teams (who rarely have anything to do with this underperformance). The only way to enforce closed allocation is to fire people who fail to conform to it, but this also means culling the unlucky whose low impact (for which they may not be at fault) appears like malicious noncompliance.

Make no mistake: closed allocation is as much about firing people as guns are about killing people. If people aren’t getting fired, many will work on what they want to anyway (ignoring their main projects) and closed allocation has no teeth. In closed allocation shops, firings become a way for the company to clean up its messes. “We screwed this guy over by putting him on the wrong project; let’s get rid of him before he pisses all over morale.” Firings and pseudo-firings (“performance improvement plans” and transfer blocks and intentional dead-end allocations) become common enough that they’re hard to ignore. People see them, and that they sometimes happen to good people. And they scare people, especially because the default in non-financial tech companies is to fire quickly (“fail fast”) and without severance. It’s a really bad arrangement.

Do open-allocation shops have to fire people? The answer is an obvious “yes”, but it should be damn rare. The general rule of good firing is: mentor subtracters, fire dividers. Subtracters are good-faith employees who aren’t pulling their weight. They try, but they’re not focused or skilled enough to produce work that would justify keeping them on the payroll. Yet. Most employees start as subtractors, and the amount of time it takes to become an adder varies. Most companies try to set guidelines for how long an employee is allowed to take to become an adder (usually about 6 months). I’d advise against setting a firm timeframe, because what’s important is now how fast a person has learned (she might have had a rocky start) but how fast, and more importantly how well, she can learn.

Subtracters are, except in an acute cash crisis when they must be laid off for business reasons, harmless. They contribute microscopically to the burn rate, but they’re usually producing some useful work, and getting better. They’ll be adders and multipliers soon. Dividers are the people who make whole teams (or possibly the whole company) less productive. Unethical people are dividers, but so are people whose work is of so low quality that messes are created for others, and people whose outsized egos produce conflicts. Long-term (18+ months) subtractors become “passive” dividers because of their morale effects, and have to be fired for the same reason. Dividers smash morale, and they’re severe culture threats. No matter how rich your company is and how badly you may want not to fire people, you have to get rid of dividers if they don’t reform immediately. Dividers ratchet up their toxicity until they are capable of taking down an entire company. Firing can be difficult because many dividers shine as individual contributors (“rock stars”) but taketh away in their effects on morale, but there’s no other option.

My philosophy of firing is that the decision should be made rarely, swiftly, for objective reasons, and with a severance package sufficient to cover the job search (unless the person did something illegal or formally unethical) that includes non-disclosure, non-litigation and non-disparagement. This isn’t about “rewarding failure”. It’s about limiting risk. When you draft “performance improvement plans” to justify termination without severance, you’re externalizing the cost to people who have to work with a divider who’s only going to get worse post-PIP. Companies escort fired employees out of the building, which is a harsh but necessary risk-limiting measure; but it’s insane to leave a PIP’d employee in access for two months. Moreover, when you cold-fire someone, you’re inviting disparagement, gossip, and lawsuits. Just pay the guy to go away. It’s the cheapest and lowest-variance option. Three months of severance and you never see the guy again. Good. Six months and you he speaks highly of you and your company: he had a rocky time, you took care of him, and he’s (probably) better-off now. (If you’re tight on money, which most startups are, stay closer to the 3-month mark. You need to keep expenses low more than you need fired employees to be your evangelists. If you’re really tight, replace the severance with a “gardening leave” package that continues his pay only until he starts his next job.)

If you don’t fire dividers, you end up with something that looks a lot like closed allocation. Dividers can be managers (a manager can only be a multiplier or divider, and in my experience, at least half are dividers) or subordinates, but dividers tend to intimidate. Subordinate passive dividers intimidate through non-compliance (they won’t get anything done) while active dividers either use interpersonal aggression or sabotage to threaten or upset people (often for no personal gain). Managerial (or proto-managerial) dividers tend to threaten career adversity (including bad reviews, negative gossip, and termination) in order to force people to put the manager’s career goals above their own. They can’t motivate through leadership, so they do it using intimidation and (if available) authority, and they draw people into captivity to get done the work they want, without paying for it on a fair market (i.e. providing an incentive to do the otherwise undesirable work). At this point, what you have is a closed-allocation company. What this means is that open allocation has to be protected: you do it by firing the threats.

If I were running a company, I think I’d have a 70% first-year “firing” (by which I mean removal from management; I’d allow lateral moves into IC roles for those who desired to do so) rate for titled managers. By “titled manager”, I mean someone with the authority and obligation to participate in dispute resolution, terminations and promotions, and packaging committed projects. Technical leadership opportunities would be available to anyone who could convince people to follow them, but to be a titled people manager you’d have to pass a high bar. (You’d have to be as good at it as I would be, and for 70 to 80 percent of the managers I’ve observed, I’d do a better job.) This high attrition rate would be offset by a few cultural factors and benefits. First, “failing” in the management course wouldn’t be stigmatized because it would be well-understood that most people either end it voluntarily, or aren’t asked to continue. People would be congratulated for trying out, and they’d still be just as eligible to lead projects– if they could convince others to follow. Second, those who aspired specifically to people-management and weren’t selected would be entitled (unless fully terminated for doing something unethical or damaging) to a six-month leave period in which they’d be permitted to represent themselves as employed. That’s what B+ and A- managers would get– the right to remain as individual contributors (at the same rank and pay) and, if they didn’t want that, a severance offer along with a strong reference if they wished to pursue people management in other companies– but not at this one.

Are there benefits to closed allocation? I can answer this with strong confidence. No, not in typical technology companies. None exist. The work that people are “forced” to do is of such low quality that, on balance, I’d say it provides zero expectancy. In commodity labor, poorly motivated employees are about half as productive as average ones, and the best are about twice as productive. Intimidating the degenerate slackers into bringing themselves up to 0.5x from zero makes sense. In white-collar work and especially in technology, those numbers seem to be closer to -5 and +20, not 0.5 and 2.

You need closed (or at least controlled) allocation over engineers if there is material proprietary information where even superficial details would represent, if divulged, an unacceptable breach: millions of dollars lost, company under existential threat, classified information leaked. You impose a “need-to-know” system over everything sensitive. However, this most often requires keeping untrusted, or just too many people, out of certain projects (which would be designated as committed projects under open allocation). It doesn’t require keeping people stuck on specific work. Full-on closed allocation is only necessary when there are regulatory requirements that demand it (in some financial cases) or extremely sensitive proprietary secrets involved in most of the work– and comments in public-domain algorithms don’t count (statistical arbitrage strategies do).

What does this mean? Fundamentally, this issue comes down to a simple rule: treat employees like adults, and that’s what they’ll be. Investment banks and hedge funds can’t implement total open allocation, so they make up the difference through high compensation (often at unambiguously adult levels) and prestige (which enables lateral promotions for those who don’t move up quickly). On the other hand, if you’re a tiny startup with 30-year-old executives, you can’t afford banking bonuses, and you don’t have the revolving door into $400k private equity and hedge fund positions that the top banks do, so employee autonomy (open allocation) is the only way for you to do it. If you want adults to work for you, you have to offer autonomy at a level currently considered (even in startups) to be extreme.

If you’re an engineer, you should keep an eye out for open-allocation companies, which will become more numerous as the Valve model proves itself repeatedly and all over the place (it will, because the alternative is a ridiculous and proven failure). Getting good work will improve your skills and, in the long run, your career. So work for open-allocation shops if you can. Or, you can work in a traditional closed-allocation company and hope you get (and continue to get) handed good projects. That means you work for (effectively, if not actually) a bank or a hedge fund, and that’s fine, but you should expect to be compensated accordingly for the reduction in autonomy. If you work for a closed-allocation ad exchange, you’re a hedge-fund trader and you deserve to be paid like one.

If you’re a technology executive, you need to seriously consider open allocation. You owe it to your employees to treat them like adults, and you’ll be pleasantly surprised to find that that’s what they become. You also owe it to your managers to free them from the administrative shit-work (headcount fights, PIPs and terminations) that closed allocation generates. Finally, you owe it to yourself; treat yourself to a company whose culture is actually worth caring about.