Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder

16 Sep 2007, 16:37 p.m.

Your Passion, Their Power

Hi, reader. I wrote this in 2007 and it's now more than five years old. So it may be very out of date; the world, and I, have changed a lot since I wrote it! I'm keeping this up for historical archive purposes, but the me of today may 100% disagree with what I said then. I rarely edit posts after publishing them, but if I do, I usually leave a note in italics to mark the edit and the reason. If this post is particularly offensive or breaches someone's privacy, please contact me.

Back on June 9th or so, way before Fog Creek and I parted ways, I read a blog entry on how to hire people for startups and posted a comment that doesn't show up there anymore. Marc Andreessen took down comments on his blog because it would take too much time to moderate them (definitely a better alternative than letting them run amok). So I'm reposting it here, slightly edited:

One of the good things about our industry is that there are frequently lots of new jobs being created and so you're almost never pushing someone out onto the street...
And, the implication runs, anyone driven enough can get another job anyway (in their city, with health insurance that starts instantly, even during recessions, etc.).

The drive/curiosity criteria do exclude some smart people. For example, the candidate who's just coming back into the job market from full-time parenting is only now getting up-to-speed on Sarbox, Vista, what have you. And this person might even make his family a priority (taking allotted vacation time and weekends)!

Startups don't like people like that. The drive and curiosity Marc seeks require sacrifice. What gets sacrificed? A job secure enough to support a spouse, or get health care for the kids. The time to volunteer for a charity, or take care of elderly relatives. Ongoing cultural literacy and engagement.

These tips sound like a great way to find Janissaries who will build your company as they build their careers. They've sharpened their ambitions, honing them to a point, shaving away concerns that regular humans might think important. You won't get "well-rounded," but you didn't ask for that. You want workers who will live and breathe the company with you. And you don't actually want people who care more about something else - family, church, dance -- than about their careers.

Marc basically says as much when he says that it doesn't matter to him why people feel driven - guilt, Type A personalities, what have you. What did happy, contented people ever do for corporate America?

In my I said, "Marc Andreessen and Paul Graham believe that startups shouldn't bother hiring people who care about anything but career." Or, perhaps, once you're hiring people who aren't willing to sleep overnight at the office, you're no longer a Real True Startup.

That article on Chinese manufacturing included a telling quote:

A factory work shift is typically 12 hours, usually with two breaks for meals (subsidized or free), six or seven days per week. Whenever the action lets up--if the assembly line is down for some reason, if a worker has spare time at a meal break--many people place their heads down on the table in front of them and appear to fall asleep instantly. Chinese law says that the standard workweek is 40 hours, so this means a lot of overtime, which is included in the pay rates above. Since their home village may be several days' travel by train and bus, workers from the hinterland usually go back only once a year. They all go at the same time--during the "Spring Festival," or Chinese New Year, when ports and factories effectively close for a week or so and the nation's transport system is choked. "The people here work hard," an American manager in a U.S.-owned plant told me. "They're young. They're quick. There's none of this 'I have to go pick up the kids' nonsense you get in the States."

It gives me pause to know that this person from my country, a manager to whom probably hundreds of workers report, considers obligations to one's family "nonsense."

If you consider your job a means to an end, you can make the appropriate trade-offs. But if you get passionate about your work, especially at a workplace you don't control, then it has power over you, like a lover or a government. "Work hard" is a code phrase that bosses will use, sometimes knowingly, to make your life worse.


17 Sep 2007, 17:13 p.m.

Here, here!

I feel that public accounting constantly runs into this dilemma:

1. The people with "lives" outside of work don't work enough. But when they do work, their work is much better.<br/>2. The people committed to the job will do whatever you ask, but for some seemingly unexplained reason, their work is just not as good.

I think there is a correlation between work product quality and personal aspirations. Something about being well-balanced, taking time away to re-energize, etc. But often the winner seems to be quantity over quality, and the good people with "lives" move one.

Not to say that people who choose to focus on their career are doomed to poorer quality. But there does seem to be a correlation.

17 Sep 2007, 22:12 p.m.

John, I was thinking of you when I wrote with indignance about the complete scorn some people show for family life. You're a smart man and an excellent worker, but you work to live, not the other way around. And it maddens me up like a hornet to know how your industry treats you.

In software, or in a few other professions, perhaps there are idiot savants who do tremendously well at their tasks because they're so obsessive. But in what proportion of jobs would such people actually be a net asset? And what proportion of smart, effective workers are that obsessive?