In Part 17, I discussed the financial considerations of starting a technology company financed by passive equity-holders. In that model, these investors are enabled to enjoy the high rate of return associated with human creative risk, but do not take an active management role. I used the term “lifestyle business” but I’ve since realized that I’m talking about something more specific: mid-growth businesses. “Lifestyle”, as I’m using it, isn’t about size, but about intended growth rate. It refers to businesses that prioritize long-term cultural health over rapid expansion, but that have a clear interest in growth itself. It’s not headcount or revenue growth that the mid-growth business optimizes for, but healthy growth: growth that doesn’t compromise the culture.
A low-growth business might be a restaurant with inherent scale limitations, or a “4-hour work week” business intended to run itself later in time. The ceiling is fairly low, and consequently there’s not a lot of interest in passive equity financing. Banks will make loans (debt financing) and usually require personal liability. Failure rates are considerable (business is always risky) but not so high as to make this completely untenable. On the contrast, a high-growth business is insistent on rapid growth– in headcount, revenues, footprint, and market dominance. 100 percent per year is barely socially acceptable; 150-200% is expected. Investors take an active managerial role and lose interest if growth falls short of 10% per month. The major downside of the high-growth business is that the vast majority run out of money and fail.
I’ve been trying to figure out a way to address the needs of the 1%- and 2%-per-month growth businesses. That doesn’t deserve to be sneezed at! If one could invest $10,000 into a business whose value grew reliably at 1.5% per month, that would turn into $356,000 after 20 years. That’s not the kind of thing that screams “fuck-you money” to thrill-seeking prospectors, but it certainly would make most passive investors happy. The conclusion I’ve come to is that we need passive equity financing of a very large number (a “fleet”) of highly capable but slow-growing (by VC-istan standards) businesses. Right now, regulations exist to keep “dumb money” away from such “lifestyle” businesses, judging small investors incapable of getting a decent deal, considering the “principal-agent problem” involved. My methodology (in the previous essay) fixes that by making compensation and profit sharing extremely simple and transparent while handling “HR expediencies” in a such a way that they don’t compound over time. Good. Solved that problem, at least on a technical front. That’s one of the major obstacles right now against my vision of connecting passive capital with human creativity in a way that doesn’t involve the career volatility and ethical compromises of VC-istan. It’s not the only obstacle, but it’s the biggest one.
Compensation is the harder of the two trust problems in organizations: do the owners (principals) trust the workers (agents) not to steal from them by overcharging or through various devious manipulations (e.g. “holding the company hostage” with key information)? Extreme transparency on compensation and culture helps a lot there. The more openness there is about the way decisions are being made, the more it is made clear that devious play-the-company-against-itself tricks won’t result in outsized personal yield, the less likely defection is. There’s a second question of trust, which is traditionally left to managers (owners don’t get involved): can we trust people to get the work done? That’s a fun one, too. Why do so many projects fail to ship? Why are so many people seemingly incompetent at self-executivity (including many actual executives)? That requires introducing the phenomenon of wasted time in an interesting context: Brownian time.
I once found myself in a discussion about the value of an hour of time. A friend of mine were trying to determine whether it was possible to value work on hour-by-hour basis? We realized that, for most work days, only 3 hours (the square root of 9) actually mattered. The other 5-6 were spent in meetings, goofing off, or general “zoned out” low productivity, for most people. This seems to be the norm, and it’s not an intentional or morally bad thing. People just can’t hold intense concentration over an 8-hour contiguous block of time that someone else picked, five days in a row at the exact same time. It’s not possible.
We realized that this idea (“Square Root Syndrome”) applied to more than just hours in the day; it was visible at larger scales. Three hours of the workday really matter; the rest is wasted. Days in a week? It seems typical to have real victories on 2 out of the 5; the other 3 are unstellar and see minimal useful work. Stuff gets done, but rarely important stuff. Apply this to the 49 weeks in a typical work-year: 7 weeks pertain to real highlights– macroscopic achievements, lines on the resume– and the other 42 are forgettable. Then look at a 36-year software engineering career. Six years of the typical engineer’s career are spent on jobs that really deliver– lead to promotions, “fuck you money”, interesting contributions to humanity. The other 30? Wasted on executive pet projects, startups that go nowhere, ingrate bosses, and bad ideas. That’s not how it is for everyone, but those numbers seem pretty typical.
The depressing conclusion of this is that out of a whole career, only a little bit counts: 3 hours/day times 2 days/week times 7 weeks/year times 6 years gives us 252 hours that are really worth a damn. Of course, that’s not how actual careers work. It could be zero hours in a person’s career that count, meaning that there’s no progress and it isn’t really a career. It could be several thousand that matter. I’ll get to that later on.
This recursive “square root” relationship is what I call Brownian Time. It shows us the downside of unstructured, chaotic behaviors. If there’s no feedback or conscious work at using time properly, you get square-root scaling. So you get twice as much out of a 4-hour meeting as you get out of a 1-hour meeting. (That’s generous; for most 4-hour meetings, one gets less.) I don’t know that the actual human pattern follows an exact power of 0.5, but it’s not far off. Why is it Brownian? It pertains to the a fractal pattern called Brownian Motion, which is a model for a variety of random processes including stock prices. If a stock has volatility (variance) of 1% per day, its volatility over a 256-day year is 16%. Most of the ups and downs cancel each other out. If one could call the good days in advance (and, of course, one can’t) then one could hold the stock for only a few days that year and realize all of its gains (or losses) in that small slice of the year. Brownian Motion is random “drift” that scales with the square root of time. If your goal is twice as far away, it’ll take 4 times as much drifting to get there.
In practice, I don’t care much for “Agile” software development practices, which often become the opposite. If you have mutual trust between managers, software engineers, and customers, then it can work well, but it’s not needed. If there isn’t that trust, Agile breaks down horribly and becomes not only a justification for intense micromanagement that borders on emotional bullying (several status checks per day) but with rigidity in such micromanagement that generates undesirable process complexity. Good teams are already doing things that look like Agile without necessarily calling that: keeping each other informed, taking full ownership of quality issues, and prioritizing important issues over silly and egotistical ones, without going nuts if (oh, my God!) something goes into version control without an associated “story”.
Yet I decided to read into “the dark side” and found a good talk about Agile by Mike Cohn, and I got a sense of what Agile really is and why it exists. Cohn isn’t trying to give evil managers a cudgel or mire teams in 45-minute “standups” where managers get to sit down. He’s trying to fix the Brownian Time problem. Between the burndown charts and time-management protocols, he’s trying to create a framework in which a team’s use of time show linear productivity rather than a square-root relationship. That, I’d say, is admirable.
Related to “Brownian Time”, of course, is Brownian Management. Requirements accumulate with no discrimination regarding which are the real requirements and which are “nice-to-haves” and which are fourth quadrant bullshit laid on because it’s free to tell someone what to do. Managers squabble over headcount and people are moved. Authority topologies change and expectations (always poorly laid out) shift. People are pushed left, than right. Ninety percent of work exists to counteract side effects of other work. From a microscopic level, people seem busy, but from a macroscopic perspective, nothing’s getting done. From an outside perspective, it looks infuriating. Ten thousand people are being paid to accomplish what looks like it should be done by 100. In other words, Square-Root Syndrome seems to apply to groups of people just as it does to time.
If all the value in a creative person’s career could be condensed into 252 hours, that would be quite an unhappy conclusion. An incredible amount of time would be wasted. If we’re going to graph the per-hour economic yield of a typical person’s career (which rarely tells the whole story, because there are interactions between one hour and the next) we’ll probably find something like that. Nassim Taleb made almost all (over 98%, if I recall correctly, of his $40 million lifetime P&L) of his lifetime earnings as a trader in one day: the October 1987 stock market crash (“black swan”). This is why narratives work for us: they capture the small number of high-impact moments; Rocky Music plays in a “practice montage” of three minutes that stands in for 3 years of intense training. Sure, one can put the most critical parts of a drama (unfolding over five years) in a 3-hour movie, and that tells the whole story. Yet we know, from experience, that you can’t get to any level of readiness for the critical moments with a measly 3 hours of preparation. It takes deliberate practice. It requires progress, and that involves making sure future hours are informed by the past and present, so the right decisions are made, and the best ideas are had, in those 252 critical hours.
One neat thing about learning as opposed to economic “doing” is that it scales better. You don’t get Square Root Syndrome with building up a knowledge base. In fact, you probably get synergy: faster-than-linear scaling of economic value. However, economic value itself is not what I intend to measure. Here’s I’m just talking about productivity: the pushing forward of a project (which might be to learn a new concept). With well-structured learning processes, people continue to push forward at an approximately linear rate, rather than experiencing the Square Root Syndrome of Brownian Time.
Most individual productivity strategies (such as the Pomodoro Technique) are designed to bring peoples’ awareness and planning up to a level where linear Progressive Time is common, rather than square-root Brownian Time. The idea behind Agile, executed well, is the same: to put enough microscopic consciousness of time into the process to remove the drift that causes Brownian Time. If a team is getting bogged down with Brownian Management, escalating technical debt, or other scaling problems, it should show up on the burndown chart.
I still don’t like Agile, because it’s built on fundamental closed-allocation assumptions. I dislike the idea of having a totalitarian Product Owner with unilateral priority-setting authorities, on the assumption that engineers will “just go do it”. Totalitarian “get it done” management is appropriate for existential threats, but those are rare and shouldn’t be assumed in normal planning. It would also be better if engineers were empowered to push for Progressive Time on their own terms (self-executivity). I think there are some good ideas in “Agile” that deserve further inspection, but I wouldn’t buy the thing wholesale, and I’ve seen it become a disaster in practice.
Square-Root Syndrome and Hierarchy’s Role
I’ve already stated my hypothesis that something like a Square-Root Syndrome applies to people. If there are 100 people in an organization, then it’s probably doing the work of 10 people. Again, I don’t know that 0.5 is the exact right power to apply, but it’s not a far-off guess for a start. I’ll get back to that.
Why is “bigness” maladaptive? Why aren’t biological cells 20 meters in diameter? The answer is simple. At that size, it will starve. Surface area grows quadratically in the diameter of the cell, while mass and need for nourishment grow as the cube. In other words, a cell’s ability to nourish itself grows as the 0.6667th power of the size. The same seems to hold with organizations, although we’re no longer talking about a 3-dimensional physical space, but an N-dimensional abstract space– ideas, information, social connections, business strategies. I’m keeping this hand-wavy intentionally, but let’s focus on the N (it works as metaphor, at least) and talk about dimensionality.
Let’s say that we’ve hired four people whose fluencies (0 to 10) in various programming languages are as follows:
Person | Java | Python | Haskell | C |
Alan | 6 | 2 | 0 | 7 |
Barb | 7 | 6 | 0 | 3 |
Carl | 5 | 5 | 5 | 4 |
Diana | 0 | 7 | 10 | 5 |
Who is the best programmer? Clearly, there’s no good way to answer that. Alan is the best at C, Barb is the best at Java, and Diana is the best at Haskell and Python. What about Carl? He’s not especially strong in any of the languages, but if there’s a project that requires Java and Haskell, he’s the only one who is ready (non-zero fluency) to do it! At 4 dimensions, we already have a world in which there’s no well-defined concept of the “best” or “worst” of these four programmers.
Dimensionality is relevant to organizations because, even though organizational dimensionality isn’t well-defined (there isn’t a clear set of “4 meaningful dimensions” that exist platonically, because what dimensions are relevant is somewhat subjective) it pertains to the optimal size of an organization. The more dimensionality there is in a business problem, the more it favors larger organizations with more specialized players. At least as metaphor, the idea of a cell in N-dimensional space works. Capacity for nourishment grows (in size p) as p^(N-1), and need for it grows as p^N, so overall organizational productivity grows as p^(N-1)/N and per-person productivity evolves in proportion to p^(-1/N)– it decreases.
What is the appropriate N for a typical corporation? Surprisingly, it’s disappointingly low. Businesses need a lot of different skill sets to operate, so one might expect this to make the case for high underlying dimensionality. If there are 10 dimensions on which people are evaluated for fit, then we get N = 10 and we scale as p^0.9, meaning we only get 7% more inefficient for each doubling in size. However, let’s consider two things. First, the proper value for N might not be an integer; it could be something like 2.35. This is a “fuzzy logic” situation where it’s subjective which dimensions matter, and how much. (This is an abstract fractal space, not a clean geometric one.) Does it matter if Carol speaks German (a candidate 5th dimension)? It depends on what the company is doing and what it needs. So the matter of which dimensions are included and excluded (a social phenomenon, not an explicit mathematical one) is unclear and could be akin to dimensions “possibly mattering, but intermittently and not all that much”. The effective N is much lower than the number of actual candidate dimensions (which is, at least, in the hundreds and arguably infinite). Second, organizational decision making is executed by humans, who can’t even visualize more than 2 dimensions easily. Three is possible, but a stretch. Four is just way outside of our experience. People making important “big company” decisions are not going to take stock of all the possible candidate dimensions. Everything gets collapsed into 2 dimensions: vertical (social status, importance, proximity to decision makers) and horizontal or “lateral” (all that other crap). Then, N = 2, and one gets exactly the square-root scaling. Since the “lateral” dimension is treated as inherently inferior (anything important would live in the vertical dimension) it might be more reasonable to treat the effective N as some lower value: 1.9? 1.85? 1.1? I won’t even begin to claim what the right number is, but it’s between 1 and 2 for most companies, and that induces something worse than square-root scaling.
If one finds this fractalized organizational pseudomathematics to be “hand wavy”, I’ll agree that it is, but there’s an important message in it. The more hierarchical and social-status driven an organization is (i.e. the lower the effective dimensionality, or the more social forces there are that collapse the organization into an org-chart or a “ladder”) the worse its capacity for nourishment (in this case, information rather than physical food) will fall behind its need. It will starve.
This is one of the inherent problems with big organizations. Their high underlying (“true”) dimensionality of needs requires size, but humans can only visualize two dimensions well as they work out their social plans, and this low effective dimensionality leads to information starvation, opacity, and inefficiency.
Management as a factor
The metaphor above discusses the biological cell, which does not scale to enormous size because of its surface-area-to-volume ratio would become too low to sustain it. Organizations have this issue as they get big: important players are on the surface, while most sit in the starving interior. This is made worse by the exertion of hierarchy, whose effect is to prioritize one point on the surface– the executive apex. (That’s where the low effective dimensionality, above, comes from.) How does this pathetic scaling relate to Brownian Management? It comes down to the MacLeod Clueless.
Losers sit away from the information surface area. They like the interior– it’s warm and comfortable and someone is closer to the outside than you in any direction– and avoid the edge. Clueless tend to be nearer to that edge, but are starved of important knowledge, or lack the competence to get it. Incidentally, they’re also the culprits in the bumbling, non-strategic, inconsistent direction of others’ time that becomes Brownian Management. They play a major role in the duplication of efforts, the go-nowhere projects, and overall waste of such a large amount of time. They get the information handed to them, which is rarely what they’d need to be properly strategic, and if the Sociopaths at the surface are engaged in zero-sum squabbling, they’ll cancel each other out. Why don’t Losers, who tend to be more strategic, fight back against the waste of Brownian time? The answer is that it won’t get them anything. They’re more likely to get fired than noticed in a good way, so they keep their heads down and implement ideas they know to be bad. Only when the ill-conceived project starts demanding above-board personal sacrifice (i.e. it becomes a “death march”) do they push back, and usually by leaving.
Understanding of organizational efficiency usually comes down to discussions of percentages. “I was only at half speed today.” That’s not the right way to understand this particular problem. First, there’s the matter of faster-than-linear returns on performance (convexity). Even without that, though, we see that often organizational inefficiency isn’t some percentage cut. That would be tolerable. Eighty percent efficiency, meaning 20 percent is dropped on the floor? That’s a cost of doing business. Square-root scaling, however, means that efficiency goes to zero with growth. You might start out at an acceptable 80% efficiency, but find yourself at 8% when you scale up by an order of magnitude.
Preventing personnel congestion is a matter of conservative hiring. Only hire multipliers who will make the whole group more productive. It’s not that mere adders should be considered unacceptable. For commodity labor, that’s perfectly fine. However, if the work is a commodity, you can specify it contractually and hire it on the market. Why bring a new person on board (and increase communication complexity) for that? I’m loathe to use the word synergy because it has become such an MBA buzzword, but that’s exactly what I’m talking about.
I believe that a company that grows conservatively can avoid Square-Root Syndrome in its people. Communication topologies and political complexities will get more complicated, but that can be offset by sharing of ideas and collaboration. So long as growth is slow enough to remain strategic and cooperative, it’s a good thing and will probably improve per-person efficiency. The problem that VC-istan companies seem to inflict on themselves is that they grow so fast that internal competition (for larger equity shares, executive roles) emerges and the whole thing implodes.
However, if you hire for synergy and avoid the Square-Root Syndrome of rapid expansion and turnover, you get to a point where the second trust problem (investors’ ability to trust in the organization to do the work) solves itself. Hire great software engineers and give them just enough direction to outline the problem, and just enough incentive (profit sharing, not equity in some far-off liquidation that might involve horrible investor preferences that wiping out common stock) to care about the profit motive, and they’ll get their work done.
Thus, most important on a day-to-day level is avoiding Square-Root Syndrome in time: getting employees to work in Progressive Time. That doesn’t mean that every idea has to come to fruition or that failure won’t be tolerated. Instead, it’s the opposite. It’s okay to fail so long as you can affirmatively answer the question: did you learn something? The difference between Brownian and Progressive Time is that the latter has a memory. The first is bumbling blindly and retracing worn paths, usually under (MacLeod Clueless) managerial dictation. The second is exploration that builds a knowledge base and enables future explorations to be more successful.
VC-istan, by the way, lives in Brownian Time. Now that M&A has replaced R&D, institutional knowledge of failures just dissipates, resulting in massive duplications of effort that swell up every few years. There is progress, but it’s at the Brownian drift rate (with selection imposing macroscopic forward movement; in other words, mindless evolution) rather than anything that could legitimately be considered deliberate forward progress.
What’s the practical way to do all of this? How does one inject these principles into a software company?
- Self-Executivity in Progressive Time. Personnel reviews aren’t about “How loyal were you to your boss’s career goals this year?” No, they’re about: did you work in Progressive Time? What did you learn? What did you teach? What multiplier effects did you have that made the whole company better? Why is this a better place to work in 2013 than it was in 2012? Why are you better in 2013 than in 2012?
- By the way, I fucking hate the term performance review. If I were running a company, there’d be no such thing. There’d be regular impact reviews. You’re assumed to be performing. You’re trusted (and those who prove unworthy of trust are packaged out) to be working hard and in good faith. The impact meeting is to discuss unintended effects (that he or she might not see) of a person’s work and behavior on the company. Very low (or negative) impact doesn’t mean you’re a horrible person who deserves to be humiliated; it’s assumed to be no-fault but means that you need to do things differently.
- “10-Year Fit” / Invest in Employees. I will confess that I’m somewhat of a “job hopper“, and I’m shameless about it. Most companies (and even many managers in the more progressive firms) don’t invest in their peoples’ careers and don’t deserve loyalty. Progressive Time is not compatible with a head-down-and-following-orders attitude toward work. However, I am personally tiring out of the job-hopping lifestyle. So instead of the typical corporation where one has to be a lucky protege to have a real career, I’d build a company around the concept of the 10-year fit, and aim to invest in employees and get progressive returns amid convexity. Fuck aiming for 10 years, let’s make it 50. You can leave and I’ll make sure that you have a great title and reference, but my job is to make things so great that you never want that option.
- Agile that Doesn’t Suck. The good thing about Agile is that it exists to coerce time into a linear, progressive march rather than the haphazard, Brownian stumbling of managed work when it isn’t monitored. The problem with it is that it involves closed-allocation assumptions and limitations of self-organization. Perhaps Agile could be adapted to an open-allocation world, however. That deserves a lot more investigation.
- Three-hour Workday. Employees are expected to work full-time in spirit, not in hours. Project plans will be based on 3 dedicated hours: that’s three hours of “metered work”, certainly not inlcuding goofing off and eating and water-pooler chat. Three is intended as the minimum obligation; of course, no one will be tracking and a person who delivers the typical corporate workday (9 hours at 33% efficiency) is in good standing instead of three solid hours. Three hours is also a right: 180 minutes of uninterrupted “building time” per day during daylight hours without meetings or those god-awful impromptu status pings. Employees should ideally be spending the other 4-7 “off-meter” hours each day to learn new skills (Progressive Time) or experiment or use Coursera or share ideas with each other.
- In practice, few people would be able to get away with a strict 3-hour day. It’s somewhat of a planning fiction that accounts for the difficulty of estimation and the extreme long-term importance of off-meter time. In this model firm that I’m building up, I can’t see anyone working less than 6 hours per day and fulfilling the softer, off-meter obligations such as continuing education, and the average would be the standard 8.
- Culture of Mentoring. The most junior engineers are expected to use their off-meter hours to learn from more senior people. The most highly-compensated people, if they wish to remain so, are expected to share knowledge and multiply their expertise across the company. This expectation of mentoring (for senior hires) and progress (for junior hires) would be the only interference with self-executive culture. If we are to stay self-executive, we must be competitive in the market place; to be competitive, we must be progressive in the growth of internal skill.
- Well-defined Audit Cycle. With the overall goal being to have each employee in Progressive Time, there’d need to be some sort of incremental work monitoring. As much as “status” meetings are disliked, there’d need to be an understanding of how often a person or team is expected to ship or demo something. Demos would invite the whole company (not one manager). I think I’d have junior hires on a 3-week audit cycle (in which, “here’s what I’ve learned” is perfectly acceptable) and senior engineers expected to demo once every 8 weeks (as a minimum; I’d encourage the same 3-week cycle). The most senior, fellow-level, engineers wouldn’t have an audit cycle; since they’d be expected to be continuously multiplying their expertise across the company and mentoring new people, such a thing would be irrelevant.
So, that solves the second trust problem: how does one ensure people get their work done? You need the right structure. It’s not about Agile or gamification or anything out of management books, and self-executivity is a necessary but not sufficient condition. You also need to put everyone in linear (Progressive) rather than square-root (Brownian) time. You need to make that a cultural pillar: not working hard, but working mindfully.