Sunday, May 11, 2008

Programmers in a Zoo: An Inspiring Insight

From, "You Weren't Meant to Have a Boss" by Paul Graham.

March 2008

A few days ago I was sitting in a cafe in Palo Alto and a group of programmers came in on some kind of scavenger hunt. It was obviously one of those corporate "team-building" exercises. They looked familiar. I spend nearly all my time working with programmers in their twenties and early thirties. But something seemed wrong about these. There was something missing. And yet the company they worked for is considered a good one, and from what I overheard of their conversation, they seemed smart enough. In fact, they seemed to be from one of the more prestigious groups within the company.

So why did it seem there was something odd about them? I have a uniquely warped perspective, because nearly all the programmers I know are startup founders. We've now funded 80 startups with a total of about 200 founders, nearly all of them programmers. I spend a lot of time with them, and not much with other programmers. So my mental image of a young programmer is a startup founder.

The guys on the scavenger hunt looked like the programmers I was used to, but they were employees instead of founders. And it was startling how different they seemed. So what, you may say. So I happen to know a subset of programmers who are especially ambitious. of course less ambitious people will seem different. But the difference between the programmers I saw in the cafe and the ones I was used to wasn't just a difference of degree. Something seemed wrong.

I think it's not so much that there's something special about founders as that there's something missing in the lives of employees. I think startup founders, though statistically outliers, are actually living in a way that's more natural for humans. I was in Africa last year and saw a lot of animals in the wild that I'd only seen in zoos before. It was remarkable how different they seemed. Particularly lions. Lions in the wild seem about ten times more alive. They're like different animals. And seeing those guys on their scavenger hunt was like seeing lions in a zoo after spending several years watching them in the wild.


What's so unnatural about working for a big company? The root of the problem is that humans weren't meant to work in such large groups. Another thing you notice when you see animals in the wild is that each species thrives in groups of a certain size. A herd of impalas might have 100 adults; baboons maybe 20; lions rarely 10. Humans also seem designed to work in groups, and what I've read about hunter-gatherers accords with research on organizations and my own experience to suggest roughly what the ideal size is: groups of 8 work well; by 20 they're getting hard to manage; and a group of 50 is really unwieldy.

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