A Pernicious Lack of Perspective

by Scott

Over the last few years, I’ve managed to peek through my fingers, with some trepidation, to look at the postings of the enfant terribles of our tech-startup-blogosphere, those of Jason Fried, DHH and the 37Signals[11.37Signals.com [link]] cohort.

And I’ve been able to get by with a silent shaking of a head and maybe the occasional chortle or two.

But this article was the final straw:

Never Read Another Resume

It was just too much.  I couldn’t silently let this one pass.  I feel provoked to comment on it.

Along the lines of their recent book, the pithy Rework[22.Rework, Crown Business, 3/2010. Potential readers, don’t be misled by the 288pp  page count, it has wider margins than a Scott Olsen High School Essay! link]],  this article is advice from Mr. Fried on how to run your business in a “non-conventional way,” specifically, advice on how to hire for a tech startup. And like much of Mr. Fried’s work it is written with the underlying theme of “advice contrary to convention.”  Mr. Fried starts with the following, presumably the advice that lent the article its imperative title:

Once we begin vetting candidates, we also behave a little differently. For one thing, we ignore resumés. In my experience, they’re full of exaggerations, half-truths, embellishments — and even outright lies. They’re made of action verbs that don’t really mean anything. Even when people aren’t intentionally trying to trick you, they often stretch the truth. And what does “five years’ experience” mean, anyway? Resumés reduce people to bullet points, and most people look pretty good as bullet points.

What we do look at are cover letters. Cover letters say it all.

Does this sound even remotely plausible? Ignore resumes, really? Let’s say two candidates came in:

Candidate 1                      Candidate 2
Stanford, MS CS, top marks       State school
Facebook (aka hot startup)       Doing Java at HP

You’d ignore this information and go straight to the cover letter?  Really? … Really? Well no, maybe not ignore, maybe just scan for the big points: education, firms, titles, length of tenure, career progression, etc.

It sounds like Mr. Fried has reinvented, from first principles, the idea of scanning a resume.  Now, is Mr. Fried the first person in Corporate America to scan a resume?  No. But why the chip on the shoulder? Why the feeling of being misled?

One can almost hear the feelings of shock and disappointment:

In my experience, they’re full of exaggerations, half-truths, embellishments — and even outright lies.

Welcome to the working week, Elvis Costello.   Most people learn this lesson at their first job. In the beginning, their boss pulls them into a few interviews, then maybe they do the telephone screen for their boss, then they help hire for the project their working on, then they hire for the group they are running and so on and so forth.  Through this, they are learning both from their direct experience but also from their mentor’s past and the cultural/organizational knowledge of their team. Now, I don’t know Mr. Fried’s work history but from this post, and others, it’s pretty clear that they had to figure out all of this stuff on their own, from the ground up.

And herein lays the root of this buggery with Mr. Fried and his 37Signals cohort.  All of their advice has a Pernicious Lack of Perspective (PLP).

They should be pleased with themselves; they figured out the answers to the set of problems and opportunities they faced with their business. They found solutions that worked for their business and for themselves personally. Great. Job well done. “Outsider Art,” if you will.  Self-taught, never institutionalized, but hey, “it works.”

Where things get dicey is when they choose to start broadcasting this as advice that is applicable to others. The Pernicious Lack of Perspective (PLP) is metastasized through the entire corpus of their “business advice” work.

Help Needed

As you read this latest piece of theirs, looking for help on your current hiring problem, very early you are confronted with this:

I’d like to share a bit about how we go about hiring at 37signals. Hiring is something we rarely do — we’re intentionally small at 20 people — but we’ve developed a method that has worked very well for us. It allows us to find the right people and keep them happy.

Huh, ok.

I talked to a CEO last week, they have a killer product: SAS, targeted at enterprise, 3+ yrs in development, deep technical rocket science. Last month a customer brought them in 3-days before the end of a 4-month sales cycle with all of his competitors, and they won the business. And that’s his issue.  He sees his lesser competitors signing up deals and he knows that if he’s on the short list, he’ll win the business.  He says he needs 2 – 3 Enterprise SAS Salespersons ASAP.

Mr. Fried?

It’s easy to say, “There’s gotta be stuff you’d like to do if you had more people.” And, of course, there is stuff I’d like to do. But I believe it’s good to operate at the limits of your organization. Limits force you to come up with creative, elegant solutions. Being forced to get more done with fewer resources is the right kind of pressure.

Yep. Yep. Good points, but, you see, I have this problem here…

A smaller team keeps you focused. It crowds out all the things you’d like to do and replaces them with the things you have to do. It forces you to prioritize and focus on the next most important thing instead of the next “wouldn’t it be cool if…” thing. There are always plenty of those.

Again, can’t disagree. But my problem, sir…

How do you know if you really need someone? A good rule of thumb is this: Have you already tried to do the job yourself? If you haven’t done the job, you don’t really understand the job. Without that fundamental understanding, it’s hard to judge what constitutes a job well done.

Hmm, well, I am not sure this is practical for my CEO friend. He’s done the handful of sales that they’ve closed in recent months, but those have been reactive responses to inbound queries.  He hasn’t gone about generating a proactive outbound prospecting campaign. Should he take the next year to become a self-taught expert in Enterprise SAS sales? Do this to solve the problem of how to evaluate an Enterprise SAS Salesperson?  Is that the best use of his, and by extension, his company’s time?

His initial idea on how to solve the “evaluation” problem is to go out and hire a top-tier VP of Sales, one who’s done it before but is hungry for his first homerun. But for that you need good advice on how to hire ;)

But Mr. Fried has taken his own advice on “trying to do the job yourself:”

We’ve learned this lesson with other positions, too. Before we hired our first customer service person (Sarah), I did all the customer service, about two years of answering e-mails. David, my business partner, and Jamis, one of our programmers, did all of our system administration before we hired our first system administrator (Mark). We found great people because we thoroughly understood the jobs.

Customer Service. Did it really take two years to learn this role? You had enough work for a full-time person, and yet you held off hiring? For two years? To learn the work?

Sysadmin.  I’ve worked with the best can-do, miracle workers. One of our current sysadmins has been called “God on Speed.”  I have also worked with the surliest “re-install NT” types.  I know both. I know what both do; know it to my core. But knowing either doesn’t help me one lick in finding and getting the miracle workers.

I am the biggest proponent of stay lean / quality growth, so I have no beef with Mr. Fried there.  But to whom is all this verbiage about it directed? Most of the startups I see are doing just that.  Mr. Fried has constructed a “conventional way” to oppose from Steve Carroll’s The Office, Excite@Home circa 1999, and a dash of Office Space TPS Reports. There are not a lot of CEO’s of startups out there today hiring for the “luxury” of having to manage more people (ha!).

Most of the time as an entrepreneur growing your company you are standing pat, steady as she goes.  But there are times, for real reasons, that as an entrepreneur, as a manager, as a practitioner, as a mensch you’ve got to act.  Sometimes there is more risk in standing pat then acting.  Sometimes the people on your team are being ground up because of the lack of a few key managers. Sometimes you see the brass ring, the reason you got into this whole thing to begin with, within reach. These are real reasons. Myself, my advisors, my investors and the people I work with have seen these real reasons in: clients, companies they advised, companies they worked for/started, portfolio companies, companies that pitched them, companies they pitched, companies they’ve bought, companies they’ve sold, etc.

And when you are faced with a situation where you need to act, as a practitioner, you want advice on how to do it well- how do you build that kick-ass team when the time is right.  What you don’t need is advice on how to stand pat. That’s easy enough to do!

What’s with the Strident Insistency(SI)?

It is clear that Mr. Fried has not had exposure to all of these varied “real reasons” for hiring. Mr. Fried has not seen 100′s of companies in different stages of growth with different risk/opportunity sets. The more you read from Mr. Fried and the 37Signals cohort, the more you start to feel that every article should be sub-titled:

Advice On How To Run Our(37Signals) Business.

Or:

What We’ve Learned On How One Should Run Our(37Signals) Business.

It’s fine to write up all these things as anecdotes or amusing stories if you have an audience for it, but why package this Pernicious Lack of Perspective (PLP) as advice?

And why with such a Strident Insistency (SI)?

Where does the “I-know-better” and the “they-just-don’t-get-it” tone come from?

The Chicago Connection

Unfortunately, I think the answer is: Chicago. I’ve lived in Chicago. I lived there for a few years.  It’s a great town with great institutions(UofC). It is also a town where it seems like everybody works for the Chicago Park District (or is working on their uncle for a slot). It’s a town where discussing neighborhoods you’ll still hear things along the line of “it’s where a lot of the young people live.”  And as far as those young people, if they work in tech at Motorola in “Schaumburg” or do IT at a law firm—hell, you’ll practically own the town.

It’s in this environment that Mr. Fried and the 37Signals cohort, “came into their own.”  They had money coming in, they figured things out, on their own, and they became successful—they even attracted fans!

Economically and opportunity-wise, Chicago feels very much like a closed-system. It feels like everybody is re-circulating the same dollars among themselves.  Somehow, who knows how, the value got trapped here long ago and we just keep re-circulating it, knowing that every trip through a little bit fritters away.

Into this closed-system, Mr. Fried brought New Money, not just New Money…. INTERNET MONEY.

The town must have opened up and been laid before his feet. The mouths of the Lessor’s Agents, Bank Salesmen and Car Dealers must have been agape every time Mr. Fried slyly dropped “oh, we’re growing,,, oh, we’re profitable,,, you know,,, internet.”  I am imaging shopkeepers scurrying around tidying while profusely apologizing and bringing their daughters out from the back.

This gives a person a fat head.  And the business environment contributes: all the old school companies that have suites in the same building as Mr. Fried’s, the old school companies that all of candidates Mr. Fried interviews work for and all these Park District Employees everywhere, desperately searching for a shrub to trim. I am sure Mr. Fried eventually wanted to scream, “They don’t get it! What the hell are they doing with their lives!?! Can’t they see what I see??”

Humility is Endless

It’s nearly impossible to get that idea in SF. In fact, quite the opposite.  Usually what one comes away with is “Danm, how the hell did they do that?”  It’s a common experience to be at a social soiree in SF, maybe feeling good because you’ve busted your ass for the last 2-years and got your revenues up to $1 million per year and they’ll be somebody from not-quite-a-competitor-but-kinda-in-your-space and you’ll be talking and they’ll mention “we’re going to do $10 million this year.”  Eventually that happens enough and you really get the idea, that if you ever did come back to that party with $10 million in revenue, you are going to bump into the guy that’s working at the company doing $100 million.

Also you’ll hear little tidbits about competitors or friends’ companies. You’ll be talking to your buddy and he’ll say something like “I ran into so-and-so, they’ve got 7 million users.”  And that’s 5x what you though it was.  “Damn, how’d they do that?”

And when you go to recruit, you’re recruiting the top guys from the top companies and they are telling you about the rocket ride days at Netscape, Paypal, goog, fb, etc.  Wow, heady stuff.

Bottom line is SF is a Company Town. And “the Company” is the tech industry.

And maybe with that, the final note on Mr. Fried’s piece:

We look for effort, too. How badly does this person want the job? Pestering is not the same as effort, though. We hired a designer named Jason Zimdars because: 1. He was good, and 2. He made more effort to get the job than anyone else. He built a special website pitching his skills just for us. So few people make the extra effort like Jason did.

In that quote, I hear a guy that’s been interviewing a lot of guys doing IT at law firms.  I hear a guy that knows he’s got something going on in a town that doesn’t have a lot of that.  And he wants a little ass smooching.  Not a lot, but he knows he has something of immense value (New Money, growth!), so immense that it exceeds the worthiness of all candidates, and he just wants a little acknowledgement of it.

Putting aside the foible of occasionally piquing one’s ego, in the end, the galling from Mr. Fried and the 37Signals cohort, comes from that potent combination of Pernicious Lack of Perspective (PLP) with Strident Insistency(SI).

You hope the real players and the kids with quality that are coming up in the industry plain ignore this stuff. You hope it’s clear to everybody.  You’re sure that it’s transparent to everybody. Along the lines of “Nobody’s really going to vote for McCain, right?”

But eventually, it just goes too far. You can’t in good conscious just hope for the best anymore.

You’ve got to take a stand.

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Mr. Fried. I am watching you.

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