I wrote before on technology’s ethical crisis, a behavioral devolution that’s left me rather disgusted with the society and culture of venture-funded technology startups, also known as “VC-istan”. There are a lot of problems with the venture-funded technology industry, and I only covered a few of them in that post. Barely addressed was that so much of what we do is socially worthless bubble bullshit, like Zynga– which, in my mind, only proves that a company can be taken seriously even when its name sounds like 4th-grade anatomical slang. Most of us in venture-funded technology are merely bankers, except for the distinction that we buy and sell internet ads instead of securities. This world of crappy imitations and bad ideas exists because there’s a class of entrepreneurs (who are well-liked by venture capitalists) who’ve become convinced that “the idea doesn’t matter”. That’s ridiculous! It’s good to pivot, and sometimes one has to change or abandon an idea to survive, but ideas and purposes do matter. When this fast-and-loose attitude is taken toward ideas, the result is that stupid ideas get lots of funding. That’s unpleasant to look at, but it doesn’t have the moral weight of some of VC-istan’s deeper problems, which I’ve already addressed. To pore into those, I think we have to look at a two-word good idea taken too far, and in horribly wrong directions: fail fast.
As a systems engineering term, “fail-fast” is the principle that a failing component should report failure, and stop operation, immediately, rather than attempting to continue in spite of its malfunction. The diametric opposite of this is “silent failure”, which is almost always undesirable. In software engineering, it’s generally understood that an average runtime bug is 10 times as costly as one found in the compilation process, and that a “do-the-wrong-thing” silent bug can be 10 to 1000 times more costly than one that throws a visible error at runtime. In software engineering, redundant systems are usually preferable because components can fail (and they will, for causes ranging from programming errors to hardware defects to data corruption caused by cosmic rays) without bringing the whole system down and, in these, for dysfunctional components to halt fast is usually a desirable behavior.
In the systems case, it’s important to look at what “fail” and “fast” mean. Fail means to stop operation once there is a detected possibility of erroneous behavior. Fast means to report the failure as soon as possible. Whether it’s a bug in software or a defect in a manufacturing process, it’s always astronomically cheaper to fix it earlier rather than later. The idea isn’t to glorify failure. It’s an acknowledgment that failure happens, and it’s a strategy for addressing it. Fail fast doesn’t mean “make things unreliable”. It means “be prepared for unexpected wrongness, and ready to fix it immediately”.
In VC-istan, “fail fast” is an attitude taken toward business, in which failure becomes almost a badge of honor. I believe this is intended as an antidote for the far more typical and pernicious attitude toward business failure, which is to personalize and stigmatize it, as seen in “middle America” and most of Europe. I’ll agree that I prefer the fail-fast attitude over the paralyzing risk aversion of most of the world. The reason Silicon Valley is able to generate technological innovation at a rate faster than any other place is this lack of stigma against good-faith failure. On the other hand, I find the cavalier attitude toward failure to often veer into frank irresponsibility, and that’s what I want to address.
The typical VC startup founder is rich. Without inherited connections, it takes about twelve months worth of work without a salary to produce something that VCs will even look at. (With such connections, VC mentoring comes immediately and a fundable product can be built within about half that time.) Even for the rich and well-connected, it’s dicey. VC acceptance rates are typically below 1 percent, so a lot of good ideas are being rejected, even coming from well-positioned people. Raising money is always hard, but for people who aren’t wealthy, the risk is generally intolerable: twelve months without salary and a high likelihood that it will amount to zilch. Why’s this relevant? Because rich people can afford a cavalier attitude toward failure. Losing a job just means moving vacations around. If one company dies, another can be built.
In an ideal world, everyone would be rich, by which I mean that material limits wouldn’t dominate peoples’ lives and their work in the way they do now. This would be a world of such abundance as to implicitly provide the safety associated with socialism, without the drawbacks, and in which poverty would be eliminated as thoroughly as smallpox. I believe humanity will reach a state like this, but probably not until the end of my lifetime, if not some time after I’m dead. In this “post-scarcity” world, libertarian capitalism would actually be a great system (and so it’s easy to see why out-of-touch rich people like it so much). Business failure would just be the impersonal death of bad ideas, resources would quickly be allocated to the good ones, and people would rise into and fall out of leadership positions as appropriate but could gracefully decline when not needed, rather than having to fire their help, pull their kids out of college, or move halfway across the country when this happens. If everyone were rich, libertarian capitalism would be a wonderful economic system. However, we don’t live in an ideal world. We have to make do with what we have.
In the real world, failure hurts people, and most of those people aren’t 23-year-olds with $5-million trust funds. Investors (not all of whom are rich) lose large amounts of money, and employees get fired, often without notice or severance. Careers of innocent people can be damaged. This doesn’t mean that failure is morally unacceptable. Good-faith failure must be accepted, because if failure leads to broad-based social rejection, you end up with a society where no one takes real risk and no advancement occurs. This isn’t an abstract danger. It’s something that most people see every single fucking day in the typical corporate workplace: a bland, risk-intolerant environment where people are so afraid of social rejection that people torture themselves in order to seem busy and important, but no one is taking creative risks, and real work isn’t getting done. So my attitude toward those who take risk and fail in good faith is one of empathy and, sometimes, admiration. I’ve been there. It happens to almost everyone who wants to accomplish something in this world.
My issue with “fail fast”, and the more general cavalier attitude toward business failure observed in VC-istan, is that people who espouse this mantra generally step outside the bounds of good-faith failure, responsible risk-taking, and ethical behavior. When you take millions of dollars of someone else’s money, you should try really fucking hard not to fail. It’s a basic ethical responsibility not to let others depend on you unless you will do your best not to let them down. You should put your all into the fight. If you give it your best and don’t make it, you’ve learned a lot on someone else’s dime. That’s fine. The problem with “fail fast” is that it sounds to me a lot like “give up early, when shit gets hard”. People with that attitude will never achieve anything.
Usually, the worst “fail fast” ethical transgressions are against employees rather than investors. Investors have rights. Dilute their equity in an unfair way, and a lawsuit ensues. Throw the business away recklessly, and end up in court– possibly in jail. One can’t easily fire an investor either; at the least, one has to give the money back. On the other hand, a remnant of the flat-out elitist, aristocratic mindset that we have to kill the shit out of every couple hundred years (cf. French Revolution) is the concept that investors, socially speaking, deserve to outrank employees. This is absurd and disgusting because employees are the most important actual investors, by far, in a technology company. Money investors are just putting in funds (and, in the case of VC, money that belongs to other people). They deserve basic respect of their interests for this, but it shouldn’t qualify them (as it does) to make most of the important decisions. Employees, for contrast, are investing their time, careers, creative energy, and raw effort, often for pay that is a small fraction of the value they add. Morally speaking, it means they’re putting a lot more into the venture.
I’ve seen too many sociopaths using “fail fast” rhetoric to justify their irresponsible risk-taking. One example of a fail-fast acolyte is someone in his mid-20s whom I once saw manage the technical organization of an important company. I won’t get into too many details, but it’s an ongoing and catastrophic failure, and although it’s evident to me at least (because I’ve seen this shit before) that he is personally headed toward disaster, it’s not clear whether the company will follow him down the drain. (That company is in serious danger of failing an important deliverable because of decisions he made.) I hope it doesn’t. First, he took a scorched earth policy toward the existing code, which was written under tight deadline pressure. (Despite this twerp’s claims to the contrary about the “old team”, the engineers who wrote it were excellent, and the code quality problems were a direct result of the deadline pressure.) I don’t consider that decision an unusual moral failure on his part. Give a 25-year-old programmer the authority to burn a bunch of difficult legacy code and he usually will. At that age, I probably would have done so as well. That’s one very good reason not to give snot-nosed kids the reins to important companies without close supervision. I remember being 18 and thinking I knew everything. A decade later… turns out I really didn’t. Taken too far, the “fail fast” mentality appeals to impulsive young males who enjoy waving a gun around and shooting at things they can’t see and don’t understand.
My second encounter with this person’s “fail fast” sociopathy was in a discussion of hiring strategy, in which he discussed building “30/60/90 plans” for new hires, which would entail milestones that new employees would be expected to meet. As a way of setting guidelines, this is not a bad idea. Technology workplaces are a bit too dynamic for people to actually know what a person’s priorities should be three months in advance, but it’s always good to have a default plan and baseline expectations. New hires typically come on board, in a chaotic environment, not knowing what’s expected or how to “on-board”, and a bit of structure is a useful. This little sociopath wanted to take things a bit further. He thought it would be a good idea to fire people immediately if they missed the targets. New hire takes 35 days to meet the 30-day goal? Gone, after one month. No chance to move to another part of the organization, no opportunity to improve, no notice, no severance, and it’s all made “fair” by putting all new hires on a PIP from the outset. I’m pretty sure, I’ll note, that this young twerp has never been fired himself– and my money’s on him being three to 12 months away from his first experience with it, depending on how fast he can learn that primary executive skill of shifting blame, and how long he can run it. These sorts of terrible ideas emerge when people are permitted to take irresponsible risks with others’ careers. Most of the damaging HR “innovations” companies invent (which become tomorrow’s morale-damaging bureaucratic cruft) occur not because they’re good ideas for the company, but because people within these companies want to propose wacky ideas that affect other people, in the hope that some “greater fool” in upper-management will see the half-baked concept as “visionary” and promote the person who invented it, regardless of the idea’s lack of merit. That’s how Google’s douche-tsunami (douchenami?) system of stack-ranking and “calibration scores”, for just one example, was born.
I don’t like people who are cavalier about failure when they haven’t been on the other side of it, either as an investor who lost a large sum of money, or as a laid-off or unjustly-fired employee. To put it plainly and simply: “failing fast” with other peoples’ risk is not courage. I say this as someone who has taken a lot of risks and failed a few times, who has always accepted the consequences of what he has started, and who has always done everything possible to make sure that anyone taking a risk with me knows what he or she is getting into.
I’m going to advise something altogether different from “fail fast”, because the term “fast” has chronological implications that I don’t find useful. Protracted failures driven by denial are bad, sure. I agree with that aspect of “fast”, but people should try to avoid failure if they can, rather than jumping immediately to declare defeat and move on to a sexier prospect. Fail safely or, at least, smartly. Know what the risks are, disclose them to those who are taking them, and be prepared to address failures that occur. There are cases where chronologically fast failure are appropriate, and there are times when it is not. Largely, the ethics of this come down to what risks the involved parties have agreed to take. People who invest in a startup accept the risk of losing the entire investment in a good-faith business failure, but they don’t accept the risk that the founder will just give up or do something overtly unethical with the money (bad-faith failure). Employees in startups accept the risk of losing their jobs immediately, without severance, if the company goes out of business; but if they’re misled about how much runway the company has, they’ve been wronged.
The ethics of “fail fast” depend largely on the explicit and implicit contracts surrounding failure: how failure is defined, and how it is to be handled. These are conversations people don’t like having, but they’re extremely important. Failures happen. Often these contracts are left implicit. For example, a person who joins a five-person company accepts that if he doesn’t fit well with the project (because a startup of that size only has one project) his employment must end. More on that, being a founder means that one will be (and should be) fired immediately if one doesn’t work well with the rest of the team, just as being a elected official means one accepts the risk of being fired for being unpopular. On the other hand, a person who joins a more stable, large company, does so with the expectation of risk mitigation. Specifically, people join large companies with the understanding that being a poor fit for one’s initial project doesn’t mean leaving the company. The additional robustness of career is a primary incentive for people to join huge companies. Therefore, large companies that impede internal mobility, usually under pretenses of false objectivity in the performance review process, are deeply unethical and their reputations should be tarnished gleefully and often, in order to prevent others in the future from being blown up by undisclosed risks.
The “fail fast” mantra implies that failure is hard, and that it takes a certain fortitude to look failure in the eye and accept the risk. Alone, that’s not hard. Lying down is easy. Quitting on someone else’s risk and dime is not hard. Letting people down is not hard. The hard part is communicating risks as they actually are to people before they get involved, finding people willing to take those risks, working as hard as possible not to let people down, and working even harder to help everyone recover from the loss should failure occur.