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The head of a small company may still choose to be a tyrant; a large organization is compelled by its structure to be one
March 21, 2008 9:25 AM   Subscribe

In an artificial world, only extremists live naturally. Or: You weren't meant to have a boss. On the other hand, maybe you are.
posted by Blazecock Pileon (36 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite

 
And yet—for reasons having more to do with technology than human nature—a great many people work for companies with hundreds or thousands of employees.

Companies know groups that large wouldn't work, so they divide themselves into units small enough to work together. But to coordinate these they have to introduce something new: bosses.


so egyptians built the pyramids as anarchist collectives?

i think that first article lacks historical perspective
posted by pyramid termite at 9:45 AM on March 21, 2008


Trembling feeling that this will devolve into a long man vs metafilter survivalist thread...
posted by Burhanistan at 9:50 AM on March 21, 2008


Dear Paul Graham. You are a smart guy who made a lot of money. That doesn't mean your "insights" into human nature are any more than the dilettantish ramblings of a man convinced of his own genius. Please go away.
posted by aspo at 9:53 AM on March 21, 2008 [7 favorites]


I think that what this guy is describing isn't associated with large companies in general, but with certain types of large companies. I work at a multiple-thousand-person company, and I have more autonomy and space for creativity than my wife did when she worked for a 25-person company.

Giant corporate behemoths are not all created equal, and neither are small organizations.
posted by gurple at 9:55 AM on March 21, 2008


And, wow:

Sales people make much the same pitches every day; support people answer much the same questions; but once you've written a piece of code you don't need to write it again.

I'm thinking of the number of times I've written something to parse some XML, or to store stuff in a tree and search it, or any number of the tasks that programmers end up doing over and over. It's a pretty strange idea of the world in which the code you wrote five years ago to do a certain thing is still appropriate.
posted by gurple at 10:01 AM on March 21, 2008 [1 favorite]


Paul Graham is nothing like a lion - amazing that he thinks he is.
posted by sjjh at 10:01 AM on March 21, 2008


Some programmers don't write the same code twice, but most programmer churn out reports for banks or "code" login screens for web pages.
posted by DU at 10:06 AM on March 21, 2008


Paul Graham could be more out-of-touch with reality, but we probably wouldn’t notice.
posted by breaks the guidelines? at 10:26 AM on March 21, 2008


DU: indeed, most programming isn't spending years to come up with some half assed version of Lisp. CRUD Screens are the general worktask of the modern programmer.

Oh to be Paul Graham, the Howard Roark of programming.
posted by zabuni at 10:26 AM on March 21, 2008 [2 favorites]


This is a spot on observance of government.
Example: The tools to extract a single failed tube from from a boiler exists, yet a government agency will require all tubes above the failure be removed. An eight hour job with minimal breeching of structural integrity turns into a month long escapade with four mechanical engineers walking around "hmm"ing and "ahh"ing.
posted by Mblue at 10:27 AM on March 21, 2008


Jeez, that sounded like a Chuck Norris joke… perhaps I could start a new meme.
posted by breaks the guidelines? at 10:28 AM on March 21, 2008


kinda interesting, but trying to relate any career path in the present to "what humans were meant to do" in the jungle is kinda useless. I like his message, and the food analogy was interesting. But it was also kinda bullshit.
posted by es_de_bah at 10:29 AM on March 21, 2008


thus, I give this an over all rating of "kinda"
posted by es_de_bah at 10:30 AM on March 21, 2008 [1 favorite]


What?! A convoluted understanding of evolutionary psychology yielding a poorly thought out essay? Somebody better call Psychology Today and inform them of this glaring omission.
posted by solipsophistocracy at 10:42 AM on March 21, 2008


...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.
...why did it seem there was something odd about them?
...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.
...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.



Something,
you say? Something different, in fact? That's really something.
posted by anazgnos at 10:43 AM on March 21, 2008


The Wired article is solid, on the other hand.
posted by solipsophistocracy at 10:49 AM on March 21, 2008


Here’s John Gruber’s takedown of the Wired article.
posted by breaks the guidelines? at 10:52 AM on March 21, 2008 [1 favorite]


I think his point is more like an alpha male/beta male thing (although it certainly applies to women as well). When you're in charge of your own destiny, you are that much more alive and powerful than when you are not. I would think that being an office worker-drone would inherently suck some of the life out of you in a way that being your own boss doesn't.

Maybe his evolutionary stuff is questionable, but this underlying point seems to be true to me, based on my own observations.
posted by MythMaker at 11:03 AM on March 21, 2008


As much as Paul Graham tends to piss me off, I thought there was a decent point or two in here.

In particular, I liked the observation that, to your boss's boss, your team/group/division looks like a single person and is expected to act like one. You could get decent mileage out of that in trying to understand how a big organization behaves.

(Sadly, from there it turns into "I made a million bucks doing X, so X is the only thing worth doing." Yeah, we've heard it before, in many different eras, for many contradictory values of X. Enough.)
posted by nebulawindphone at 11:19 AM on March 21, 2008


Malcolm Gladwell (who I'm also skeptical of, but he has citations at least) has a chapter in The Tipping Point arguing that effective human groups top out at about 150 -- that's where our brains stop being able to track all of the relationships, and we have to start treating some members as cogs in the machine. He cites Goretex as a company doing what Graham suggests -- every time they go over 150 employees in a unit, they split it up into what are effectively two self-sufficient companies.

I'd love to know if anyone who's more of a scientist than a journalist has evaluated that chapter.
posted by jhc at 11:20 AM on March 21, 2008


When you're in charge of your own destiny, you are that much more alive and powerful than when you are not.

It's the whole attitude that you aren't in charge of your own destiny just because you are employed by someone that makes people so frustrated and pissed off. The employee and the entrepreneur are equally in control of their own lives, just the entrepreneur is trading greater personal risk for higher rewards.
posted by public at 11:30 AM on March 21, 2008 [1 favorite]


Malcolm Gladwell (who I'm also skeptical of, but he has citations at least) has a chapter in The Tipping Point arguing that effective human groups top out at about 150

Christopher Allen wrote a bunch of good articles about this. See the related posts bit at the bottom for more links.
posted by public at 11:34 AM on March 21, 2008


Well, the entrepreneur can choose to go play golf if he/she wants to in the middle of the day, and the office-drone employee can't. Not without losing their job.

That means that they are more in control of their own lives.
posted by MythMaker at 11:42 AM on March 21, 2008 [1 favorite]


And founders and early employees of startups, meanwhile, are like the Birkenstock-wearing weirdos of Berkeley: though a tiny minority of the population, they're the ones living as humans are meant to.

Thus sayeth the Elder of Lisp. So let it be coded, so let it be run.
posted by StrikeTheViol at 11:49 AM on March 21, 2008 [1 favorite]


MythMaker: So no employee has ever called in "sick" when they just couldn't bring themselves to go into work that day. And entrepreneurs are all as free as birds and the money just appears because they started a company.

Being an employee has different benefits and freedoms from running your own company.
posted by aspo at 11:58 AM on March 21, 2008


Well, the entrepreneur can choose to go play golf if he/she wants to in the middle of the day, and the office-drone employee can't. Not without losing their job.

Please leave your strawmen at the door.
posted by public at 11:58 AM on March 21, 2008


It's the whole attitude that you aren't in charge of your own destiny just because you are employed by someone that makes people so frustrated and pissed off.

Alternatively, the assertion that anyone is ever in charge of their own destiny.
posted by anazgnos at 12:10 PM on March 21, 2008


A job at a big company is like high fructose corn syrup...

I enjoyed that sentence, being my own boss (but, unfortunately, not doing a very good job with my own destiny).
posted by LeLiLo at 1:09 PM on March 21, 2008


falsedichotomyfilter: selling my time for a set wage is entrepreneurial.

Like the difference between investing in stocks v. bonds. One is a much riskier gamble which...well that's been covered already.

Reading pseudophilosophy from someone who tries to teach by looking down is torture. Bite my stable labor-market participating ass, Mr. Graham.
posted by valentinepig at 1:16 PM on March 21, 2008


It sure would fluff up my self-esteem to be Founder of a Startup on someone else's dime.
posted by AppleSeed at 1:20 PM on March 21, 2008


That means that they are more in control of their own lives.

It means they're more in control of one aspect of their lives.

If freedom to golf spontaneously is all you value in life, then yes, being an employee is stupid. If you value other things too, the situation might be a bit more complicated.
posted by nebulawindphone at 1:34 PM on March 21, 2008


It all depends on whom you work for, but I just know from my own recent personal experience, that I feel a lot more alive when I'm my own boss and can call my own shots than when someone else calls them for me.

Sure, the economy is a big wheel, and even when you're the boss you answer to the client or the customer, but there really is a difference between being your own boss and working for someone, and there's no strawman involved.
posted by MythMaker at 4:29 PM on March 21, 2008


As a programmer, it speaks to me somewhat.

But, he does strike me as a little overinflated sometimes.
posted by Netzapper at 6:01 PM on March 21, 2008


Well, the entrepreneur can choose to go play golf if he/she wants to in the middle of the day, and the office-drone employee can't. Not without losing their job.

The entrepreneur who wants to be successful doesn't choose to play golf in the middle of the day. He works. Seven days a week, in many cases. He sweats over making payroll for his employees every two weeks. "Office drones," on the other hand, can take off, and can put down their work at the end of the day.

Some people live to work. Others work to live.

Paul Graham bugs the hell out of me, because he's so quick to generalize from his own experiences and beliefs, which are fairly atypical. If he were an "office drone" he'd write about how great that is.
posted by me & my monkey at 3:51 AM on March 22, 2008


I'm hearing (but not really understanding) the hating, I agree he's generalizing a bit and failing to comprehend that the more lateral approach can also be beneficial (e.g. working for an employer can distribute responsibility, freeing up the employee for other mental pursuits etc).
But, currently working for a difficult and micro-managing boss, I agree that being stifled in the initiative stakes does make you more passive and therefore less likely to innovate.

There's also no accounting of the middle ground. I personally prefer contracting because it means frequent change and challenge, plus some security and more freedom than permanent employment. He has no view on the freelance jungle beastie...
posted by freya_lamb at 4:24 AM on March 24, 2008


Well, the entrepreneur can choose to go play golf if he/she wants to in the middle of the day, and the office-drone employee can't. Not without losing their job.

A huge assumption there. I can leave work to play golf almost any day I want, as long as I get my work done at another time ... just like a self-employed person.

I would propose that my schedule is (currently) much more flexible than your average entrepreneur. With much less risk. Plus health care for $10/mo.

Which path is right for which people is very much dependent on their goals and objectives, I would think. If your goal is to become filthy rich and/or famous, then yeah, entrepreneurship might be the right path. An enjoyable job (is that possible?) with enjoyable colleagues and a comfortable income?

Employeeship has a number of positive aspects, is all I'm saying, particularly if you work for a good person/company (is that possible?) ;)
posted by mrgrimm at 8:14 AM on March 25, 2008


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