Issue 10 – Fire all the bosses? Non-hierarchical management and so much more!

Posted on July 21st, by kate in issues. Comments Off

Date of this issue is Sunday July 15Hello Game Changers!

Welcome to the newest edition of Technology & Leadership News! You can peruse the articles below, and don’t forget to check out the bonus links here. As always, please send any feedback, commentary, or guest-posting ideas to

News to know

Leadership – Non-hierarchical management and PAID paid vacation!

Valve’s Michael Abrash dishes on non-hierarchical management and self-organization

For those of you who don’t know already, I am a little obsessed with Valve’s approach to running their company.  They don’t have roles, they don’t have managers, and people work on what they want.  Abrash’s post summarizes his experience and why hierarchical structures hurt innovation and creativity.

Innovation and originality are key to the success of software today:
Once Doom had been released, any of thousands of programmers and artists could create something similar (and many did), but none of those had anywhere near the same impact. Similarly, if you’re a programmer, you’re probably perfectly capable of writing […] any of hundreds of enormously successful programs. There’s little value in doing so, though, and that’s the point – in the Internet age, software has close to zero cost of replication and massive network effects, so there’s a positive feedback spiral that means that the first mover dominates.

Hierarchical management interferes with creativity:
What matters is being first and bootstrapping your product into a positive feedback spiral with a constant stream of creative innovation. Hierarchical management doesn’t help with that, because it bottlenecks innovation through the people at the top of the hierarchy […] Consequently, Valve has no formal management or hierarchy at all.

Valve trusts individuals and gives them autonomy to do what they think is best:
Hardest of all to believe is the level of trust. Trust is pervasive. […] Any employee can know almost anything about how the company works and what it’s doing; the company is transparent to its employees. Unlike many organizations, Valve doesn’t build organizational barriers to its employees by default; it just trusts them and gets out of their way so they can create value.

Non-Hierarchical Management

This an older post that was shown to me recently when I was speaking at Velocity a few weeks ago – and it is great!  So many good lessons and what non-hierarchical management is all about.  It is really quite long but full of good advice.  I selected a few highlights, but this one is worth reading!

  • A better way to think of a manager is as a servant, like an editor or a personal assistant. Everyone wants to be effective; a manager’s job is to do everything they can to make that happen. The ideal manager is someone everyone would want to have.
  • Instead of the standard “org chart” with a CEO at the top and employees growing down like roots, turn the whole thing upside down. [BTW – Nordstrom does this for their org chart, with their customers at the top!  And here is a great post on the one rule in their employee handbook]
  • In addition to your team’s professional skills, it’s important to understand their personal goals. However much you may care about the work, at bottom it’s still a job. You need to understand why your team members took it.
  • You have to set some personal boundaries: you’re their manager, not their friend.
  • Your first job as a manager is to make sure everyone’s on the same page.
  • Those dumb break-the-ice games do not make people *more* comfortable.
  • Find a team member who wants to do each part. The key word here is wants — some things just have to get done, it’s true, but things will get done much better by people who want to do them.

Spending your days doing grunt work for people who are smarter than you. Obsessing over their mood and personal problems. Turning down all opportunities to take credit or get attention so you can continue to work as a servant.
Ah, the life of a manager -it is a great read for anyone in a leadership role.

Flat Organizations Don’t Create Good Leaders

When everyone is acting like the boss and “leading from the chair” what happens to the experience and value that comes from stewardship and a thorough understanding of actions and culture on individuals?  Who looks out for the growth of each person?  If everyone is responsible and influential, how are the lessons and experience that come from trial and error percolated throughout the organization?

All good questions (most of them mine) – but this article does try to give tips to help flat organizations spread the “leadership” lessons to individuals:

  1. Hire for personality, drive, execution, and accountability; not just skills and knowledge.
  2. Reward leadership. Clearly define what leadership means within your organization, then reward it aggressively.
  3. Institutionalize mentorship.
  4. Establish communication hubs. [Totally agree with this point – most project failures are a result of miscommunication or misunderstanding.]
  5. Build a company of listeners and question-askers. A culture that rewards self-awareness and emotional intelligence is a culture of leadership. [I love this! Yes!]

Paid Paid Vacation

This is definitely a cool idea.  This company gives employees 15 days of holiday and $7,500 to take the vacation.  The purpose of this to encourage employees to disconnect because they will be happier and it also makes them make feel rewarded from the company.
And I am so the guy in this picture from the article (click through to see it)

Tech – The Types of Hard and Alan Key

Understanding difficulty – feasible, unfeasible, hard and very hard

This is an older post that goes into the different types of problems engineers often face and helps to explain the varying difficulties by assigning semantics:

  • Impossible. A problem is impossible if its solution can not be computed by a Turing machine.  The thing about Turing machines, is that they’re infinitely fast and have unlimited storage, and you have an unbounded amount of time to write your program for it. But not all problems can be computed by Turing machines – for example they can’t tell you if you will a book or not.
  • Trivial.  I know how to solve this problem.  To a programmer, a problem is trivial if there is a clear solution, and the only thing that needs to be done is to implement it.
  • Unfeasible. A problem is unfeasible if enough of the solution is known to determine that you don’t have the resources to solve it. The field of cryptography offers us a perfect example of a problem that is both trivial and unfeasible.
  • Non-Trivial.  I do not know how to solve this problem completely.  Non-trivial contains dangerous unknowns. Some part of it is not yet understood, or lies outside the range of things the programmer has done before, or can quickly imagine a workable solution to. The more experienced the programmer who tells you a problem is non-trivial, the more concerned you should be.
  • Hard can be used to describe non-trivial problems with a big potential for ‘unknown unknowns’ – things the developer not only doesn’t know the solution to, but doesn’t even know what kind of problems he’s likely to face.
  • Very Hard is the extreme of hard problems. ‘Very Hard’ is usually reserved for the class of problem that if you solved it, you could change the world. Or at least build a successful business on top of your solution.

Really interesting interview with Alan Kay

Kay was one of the original creators of Smalltalk and one of the my top 10 favorite computer scientists.  And the article contains all sorts of interesting quotes.  For example:

  • The Internet was done so well that most people think of it as a natural resource like the Pacific Ocean, rather than something that was man-made. When was the last time a technology with a scale like that was so error-free? The Web, in comparison, is a joke. The Web was done by amateurs.
  • Nowadays people are reinventing the flat tire.
  • I don’t have an enormous desire to help children, but I have an enormous desire to create better adults” “That’s when I realized that adults were dangerous. Like, really dangerous.
  • PowerPoint is just simulated acetate overhead slides, and to me, that is a kind of a moral crime.
  • The lack of interest, the disdain for history is what makes computing not-quite-a-field.

Product & Process – Intuitive Design and Simplicity

Simplicity in system architecture: I bet you over-engineered your startup

It’s true with all the technology and the hype some people are over-investing in ideas, new libraries and lots of discrete services.  Designing and separating concerns via a service based architecture is smart for lots of reasons – but it is true us software engineers like to build the “grand solution”.
The lesson: Simplify.  Don’t scale until you have to do so.  Plan ahead, but don’t over complicate things unless necessary.

On a more personal note, I learned this when I was freelancing for a bunch of startups.  One of the companies I worked with had been acquired for upwards of $25M and I was tasked with analyzing the architecture (which was having issues).  Quickly I realized that the whole application was one big mess of spaghetti code, deployed simply with scp (who needs versioning anyway?).

When I reported back on the lack of separation and the scaling troubles associated the software equivalent of bailing wire and duct tape, my boss said something that will always stick with me as a reminder about great code: “Who is to say they made the wrong choices – we have a website bringing in over $1M per month in revenue.  It isn’t elegant, but I would say it is superior to all the greatly engineered products that never made a time.”

Design is everybody’s business

So much of what this article is about applies to the tech world too. The author highlights the ten principles that drive the design behind Herman Miller furniture. Some of the most impactful:

  • We design to solve a problem.
  • Everything relates to the problem.
  • We don’t copy.
  • The quality of our work is evident.
  • This is the way it has to be.

What this company strives to do is not just create a great product, but to create the product that needs to be created. “What comes out of the truck is furniture, but what goes in is an amalgam of everything we believe in.”

Revenue optimization: Improving the cancellation process

Interesting ideas on improving cancellation process to retain customers; and I have definitely seem similar tactics work in the past. I thought this part was most pertinent:
Now, when a user wants to cancel, we give them two buttons front and center, one of which likely describes the reason they’re canceling. If it’s because of price, we’ll give them an instant, lifetime discount; if it’s because they’re not happy with us, we’ll connect them directly with the founder, Ted. In two clicks, we can potentially alleviate the user’s pain (and keep them as a customer).

What’s the difference between business development and sales?

The difference is simple really: in business development, you’re convincing people to make a decision they don’t have to make while in sales, you’re convincing people to make a decision they have to make.
Business development is convincing companies to partner with your company or to do something they don’t have to do but that would likely be mutually beneficial.
In contrast, sales people normally are selling to the decisions makers who need your products and are picking from an array of options.
Both require skills of persuasion and influence.

Special Section – The UI Programming Revolution

Preparing yourself for modern JavaScript development

If you haven’t been spending much time on UI development recently you may not be aware of many of the exciting developments with JavaScript both in and outside of the browser.
The post covers the following JS topics (and is worth reading if you have anyone on your team doing JavaScript development and you need to stay abreast of some of the recent trends):

  • Modules
  • Namespaces
  • Revealing module pattern
  • Creating constructors (classes)

If you already know JS well , I would skip it, but if you are planning on picking up (or are managing people working with JS) it is worth a read.

More fun with JS: A file that’s both an acceptable HTML page and a JPEG

It appears spoofing .bmp is doable, and here is proof.  Header validation IS NOT ENOUGH make sure you are re-encoding.
And here are some more examples:
A PNG that’s interpreted as HTML and loads itself as compressed JavaScript!  Another one is Matraka and an explanation of how it works (including the source code).
“The page seems to manipulate a semi-bug: if the browser gets confused by the Content-type of a page, it seems to attempt to interpret it as HTML – even if it actually contains image data. In this case, a strange mix of behaviors will occur.. the image data will be decoded, but content on the page will be evaluated as Javascript as well.”

An open letter to web designers and developers – Max CSS

Ever see a nifty CSS trick and wonder how they got that affect, and then find it impossible to determine because of the minified CSS?  It is great for performance but bad for learning.  If you are building UIs, considering offering a Max CSS version of the file that people can download and use as a learning tool.

Responsive Advertising

If you haven’t heard of responsive design, this may not be as exciting for you, but if you have tried to put display ads into a responsive design this article will give you hope – responsive advertising advertising.  And if you don’t know what responsive design is, this article has a decent primer on the concept and implications.

What Makes a Design Seem ‘Intuitive’?

In our research, we’ve discovered that there are two conditions where users will tell you an interface seems ‘intuitive’. It only takes meeting one of the two conditions to get the user to tell you the design is intuitive. When neither condition is met, the same user will likely complain that the interface feels ‘unintuitive’.

  1. Both the current knowledge point and the target knowledge point are identical. When the user walks up to the design, they know everything they need to operate it and complete their objective.
  2. The current knowledge point and the target knowledge point are separate, but the user is completely unaware the design is helping them bridge the gap. The user is being trained, but in a way that seems natural.

Properties of Intuitive Web Pages

An intuitive design is invisible. Good design is invisible. It is like air conditioning –you don’t notice it until something is wrong.
He explains that the key thing is a user’s current knowledge and target knowledge and how the managing of the delta is what defines intuitive design:
A design is intuitive when current knowledge is equal to target knowledge. A design is unintuitive when there is a gap between current & target knowledge.
There are some other lessons in there including some of the reasons most redesigns fail, and how to use user research to overcome these obstacles.

Quick Bytes

Late bloomer, not a loser. (I hope)

I bet this article resonates with a bunch of you reading this newsletter :)
Love this honesty and vulnerability from one of the bigger names in the startup and tech community.

Emotions are contagious – what are you spreading?

Your attitude matters – especially if you’re in a leadership role – but every part of a team is susceptible to the drain of negative energy. It’s contagious and can bring an otherwise successful team down to mediocrity. While you can’t always be in a great mood, it matters whether or not you can control it.
The emotions people bring to work are as important as their cognitive skills, and especially so for leaders. Negative emotions spread fast and they’re highly toxic.”

What do you do when they don’t understand?

“Many sources, from textbooks to websites, take the position that if you don’t understand a concept or a nuance, it’s your loss. I think that’s an strategic failure on the part of the writer.”
Today, there is no reason you should be misunderstood. With the wealth of information available – and the widespread use of online communication – you can always link to provide readers information they need. And if you need extra words to make a point clear, you always can…since you won’t be wasting paper.

Lessons from Sherlock Holmes: How do you kill your hero?

Arthur Conan Doyle had learned a valuable lesson: you cannot kill Sherlock Holmes. It simply isn’t done.
Interesting read on the delicate relationship between what author wants and what the reader expects (and certainly applies to all kinds of expectations really – such as weather, or even dinner plans – if you think you are going to a nice restaurant and you end up at the Olive Garden you will be far more upset, than if you were expecting the Olive Garden – in the latter case you may have even been thrilled about all all-you-eat salad and breadsticks!).

“When you highlight your genre ahead of time—however you’ve chosen to do so—you have to remain faithful to the parameters you set—or risk the wrath and black armbands of your loyal fan base. When you betray the expectations of the genre, it’s like pulling the rug out from your audience. It’s a far worse crime than if you’d not set any expectations to begin with.”

[Geeking Out]

Why the days are numbered for Hadoop as we know it?

Big data is about so much more than just data processing (via tools like Hadoop) – but this article poses the question on the enterprise excitement and adoption around a technology that is quickly becoming outdated. For example Google’s Percolator, Dremel, and Pregle are better alternatives to quicker ad-hoc big data queries. And I can tell you systems like Percolator can be much more cost effective too – because you don’t need to recompute every thing each time.
“Hadoop is an incredible tool for large-scale data processing on clusters of commodity hardware. But if you’re trying to process dynamic data sets, ad-hoc analytics or graph data structures, Google’s own actions clearly demonstrate better alternatives to the MapReduce paradigm”

How to recruit open-source contributors

Valuable advice in a concise writeup about how Gentoo keeps its open source recruits in 3 steps:

  1. Establish the expectation that most contributors become long-term developers
  2. Make them interact as true community members, not through a mentor’s conduit
  3. Don’t let them slip away. Sometimes, all you have to do is ask.

In Treatment for Leukemia, Glimpses of the Future

Great article about the advancements in cancer research using whole genome sequencing – it is a touching story of a research team rallying around one of their own to fight Leukemia.

[Wordly Reading]

A Dust Over India

An honest, first-person account of travel in India as a tourist. It’s a long but engaging read, even if it is a bit controversial (there were lots of upset people on twitter about this one).
He describes India as dirty and impoverished and makes statements like:
“It is legitimate take-your-breath-away poverty. Like the kind you see on TV charity ads but far worse. And far more real. Limbless men stewing about in their own feces. Emaciated children playing on a piles of garbage. A man with his leg literally rotting off to the bone, maggots and all, laying on the curb. It’s everywhere.”

The rotten heart of finance – A scandal over key interest rates is about to go global

“This is the banking industry’s tobacco moment,” says the chief executive of a multinational bank, referring to the lawsuits and settlements that cost America’s tobacco industry more than $200 billion in 1998. “It’s that big,” he says.
Bankers at Barclays have been determining – and rigging – key interest rates, and their actions will have global consequences. With every incentive to lie, and basing their decisions on shaky information to begin with, these bankers were able to manipulate numbers that amounted to millions of dollars in daily gains for their firms. As international regulators work to see how deep the corruption went, they must also examine where we go from here.

How Amazon’s ambitious new push for same-day delivery will destroy local retail

Amazon will start collecting sales tax soon… in order to have SAME DAY delivery. Wow.
The possibility of getting my stuff from Amazon the same day sounds great, but I don’t want to lose local retail. Manjoo’s Slate piece is an intelligent read and has been shared extensively so you might have actually read it by now.

If prices were equal, you’d always go with the “instant gratification” of shopping in the real world. The trouble with that argument is that shopping offline isn’t really “instant”—it takes time to get in the car, go to the store, find what you want, stand in line, and drive back home. Getting something shipped to your house offers gratification that’s even more instant: Order something in the morning and get it later in the day, without doing anything else.

The Generations of Men: How the Cycles of History Shape Your Values, Your Idea of Manhood, and Your Future

This article took me almost 45 minutes to read.  In a sentence: the author explains the art of manliness through the generations, covering history’s cycles & generation types using the Strauss-Howe theory.  I had heard of the Strauss-Howe theory but I can say I didn’t understand it until reading this thorough explanation.
If you have the time add this to your reader – it is worth it (and it is really too long to summarize in this email!)

Requiem for a Russian Spy – A CIA veteran remembers his Soviet counterpart.

An American spy writes about his former enemy.  When it comes to the Cold War, there is still much debate in Russia on Rutskoi’s second incident (the one on the 4th of August 1988), and it is good to read some first-hand accounts.  Plus – it is the story of two spies!
“The lead content of a single round of ammunition was the equivalent of a person’s life, whether worthy or pitiful.”

[Just for fun]

WTF: Video of a clam eating

For a whole 1:21 being amused, amazed, and a little grossed out. (via reddit)

Comic: The Internet: A love story

I can totally relate to this one!


Fun little web app/bookmarklet that allows you to place “bombs” on any website that will blow up the fonts!

The Power of Photos

This post on the wealth of information stored in images – contemplates the power of your brain and its ability to process images combined with stories and memories that can be recalled so quickly just like a video.  Sometimes you forget how powerful your mind really is….

The science of Batman’s cape

If Batman jumped from a building 492ft (150m) high, the team discovered, he could glide a distance of around 1148ft (350 metres).  But his velocity would increase to about 68 mph as he descended before reaching a steady 50 mph as he approached street level – a speed too great for him to survive without serious injury.

[Useful & Productive]

10 Ways to Live a More Meaningful Life

Living a more meaningful life means something different to everyone. But this article breaks it down so simply, we could all benefit from trying some of it out. A few of my favorites are:

  • Be Self-Aware
  • Focus
  • Live With Compassion

.Mail is an refreshing new spin on a modern email client

I just wished this was a launched product – “Emails are just emails anymore.  ‘Mark as read’ is useless & not fit for a modern and creative workflow.”


Strategy, project and action management for you and your executive team
It looks interesting and I have heard good things about it.  If you try it out let me know – I would be interested in how it works out.

Quote of the Week: “A person who never made a mistake never tried anything new.” – Albert Einstein

That’s all for this week! If you liked it, consider sharing with a friend. :)


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