You Weren't Meant to Have a Boss (2008)

(paulgraham.com)

321 points | by cow9 9 days ago

35 comments

  • jqcoffey 9 days ago

    So I'm a manager in a large engineering org (~600 devs) and I've managed from 2 (and was therefore an IC) to ~40 people. I can definitely relate to this blog post and if the author's intent is to say that working in small groups is easier and more natural than working in large ones, then I agree wholeheartedly, but I think there are a few other things to keep in mind.

    > One is that companies will inevitably slow down as they grow larger, no matter how hard they try to keep their startup mojo.

    He goes on to say that this is a consequence of the tree structure, which may be technically correct, but I think this is actually a consequence of the natural conservatism that develops at a large company making lots of money and paying lots of salaries. This doesn't change the validity of his message, but I think it's worth pointing out the motivations of a large company.

    > The restrictiveness of big company jobs is particularly hard on programmers, because the essence of programming is to build new things.

    So this is also, on it's face, completely valid. The only exception I take with it is that "new things" is ill-defined. If he means to say, "building entirely new systems from scratch is nearly impossible at a large company," then yes. That is 100% true. If in that he includes, "building critical new functionality into an existing system that will make hundreds, thousands or maybe millions of users insanely happy," then, as you can probably read from my phrasing, I think he's wrong.

    I personally prefer doing the second than the first. I think it's a harder challenge to work within legacy systems and make them adapt than to be a full-time greenfield engineer. (sidebar: If any of my colleagues are reading this they may be rolling their eyes given a project we have in motion at the moment because it's perceived as greenfield--come see me I'll do my best to convince you it's not :D)

    > But a programmer deciding between a regular job at a big company and their own startup is probably going to learn more doing the startup.

    Implicit in my previous comment is that, because it's harder making things move in Big Corp one tends to learn more, both as an engineer and as a human. Finding the right technical path through a heavily used, critical system is an interesting challenge, and evolving legacy systems, or spawning new work in a large org requires lots of communication, as well.

    All that said, I do fully agree that working in such a large corp generates a different sort of stress than working in a small company (I've worked in many). In a small company you're worried, fundamentally, about the company's viability and therefore your paycheck. In a large company I think the major stress is knowing whether you still have a voice that carries any weight.

    Anyway, it was a great post and I thank the sharer of it :).

    • venantius 9 days ago

      > Implicit in my previous comment is that, because it's harder making things move in Big Corp one tends to learn more, both as an engineer and as a human. Finding the right technical path through a heavily used, critical system is an interesting challenge, and evolving legacy systems, or spawning new work in a large org requires lots of communication, as well.

      Unfortunately the peril one often encounters in such ecosystems is that "the right technical path" for working with BigCo's system is totally un-translateable to general working knowledge. By that I mean it often means having to work around specific constraints that have evolved and are specific to that BigCo and not to other BigCo's, let alone to smaller startups. It also pushes you to generally work with technology which may be a bit older, which can often mean having to accept that current best practices simply aren't at play.

      I do agree with the second part of your thesis, which is that the social challenges of working in a big company are significant and can make one very well suited generally for management and leadership in a way that's not the case at a smaller company.

      • SZJX 12 hours ago

        It could also pay off to be a specialist instead of a generalist though. Depends on what you want to do. Say if you become an expert in large scale distributed systems or some cutting edge AI techniques which require tons of data, which only big companies can afford to have, you'd still be very highly valued and probably better paid than the millions of generalists who can set up a normal software system. You'll become indispensable. On the other hand if you want to start a company yourself later, then being a specialist wouldn't help.

        • JumpCrisscross 8 days ago

          > the peril one often encounters in such ecosystems is that "the right technical path" for working with BigCo's system is totally un-translateable to general working knowledge

          Having also seen many start-ups fail because they prioritized the right technical path over product-market fit, there's a balance that's generally unappreciated by both pure managerial and pure technical types.

          • groby_b 8 days ago

            What you learn is not the path, but how to find a path. And that - finding a path in an environment with lots of constraints - is an invaluable skill.

          • watwut 9 days ago

            Larger company that is trying to keep startup mojo is special kind of hell - mostly due to ugly politics that emerges. You cant manage small group of people the same way as big one and vice versa.

            > The restrictiveness of big company jobs is particularly hard on programmers, because the essence of programming is to build new things.

            I dont think we should devalue maintenance and maintenance programmers. I know it is popular, especially among those who want to convince programmers to go to startups, but that is exactly what it is.

            • maxxxxx 8 days ago

              "Larger company that is trying to keep startup mojo is special kind of hell - mostly due to ugly politics that emerges. You cant manage small group of people the same way as big one and vice versa."

              My company is on that path. It's merging the bad parts of startups like overambitious deadlines and lack of organization with the bad parts of big companies like bureaucracy and lack of flexibility. Management seems happy but from a worker's point of view we have relentless pressure to deliver mixed with a huge layer of politics. It has become really unpleasant over the last few years.

              • SketchySeaBeast 8 days ago

                "lack of organization" and "bureaucracy" ... You work for Vogons.

                • maxxxxx 8 days ago

                  We have a lot of people who can say "no" but much less people who say "yes" and help to achieve things.

              • philipps 9 days ago

                For anyone interested in the importance of maintenance I highly recommend the article “Hail the maintainers (Innovation is overvalued)” and the Freakonokics podcast episode that builds on the article. I gained a new appreciation for maintenance from them.

                [1]https://aeon.co/essays/innovation-is-overvalued-maintenance-...

                [2]http://freakonomics.com/podcast/in-praise-of-maintenance/

                • jqcoffey 9 days ago

                  omg, yes and yes! Large companies should assume the fact that they're large and maintenance engineers are my heroes.

                  These folks are in the hardest spot in large orgs because they perform hidden feats of heroics all the time, yet they're typically only noticed when things go wrong.

                  • draw_down 7 days ago

                    That’s exactly why it’s a raw deal and one should (imo) attempt to stay on the more innovative side of that fence. I like maintenance and I’m very good at it but it’s a mug’s game.

                    People who make features get recognition and rewards. Maintainers get to fix their sloppy mistakes and receive the pages when their shit breaks in the middle of the night. Not fair but that’s how it is. How people are treated reveals how they are valued.

                  • monksy 8 days ago

                    Just because you're working on a system that is already in place doesn't mean that you can't do new things. The refactoring is "new work"

                  • arkh 9 days ago

                    > Finding the right technical path

                    Often it is more about the right political path. Getting something approved like you want it to can mean months of back-channel work to make it become other people's idea.

                    • tonyedgecombe 9 days ago

                      I don't think it's just "new things", in my experience corporates go out of their way to stop you building anything. Compared to working for yourself it's like wading through treacle trying to get anything done. The only time I found it easier was when I was consulting but even then it was hard.

                      You certainly will learn more about the politics in a large company but from an engineering perspective you tend to get pigeon holed. You will learn a lot about a very narrow area. Working in a small company gives you a much broader experience, both of the technology and business. I remember a famous poster from this community describing a purchase order as an exotic method of payment. Nobody who has worked for a scrappy startup would think that.

                      Ultimately though it comes down to horses for courses. You clearly thrive in a big company environment, I definitely don't.

                      • jqcoffey 8 days ago

                        > You will learn a lot about a very narrow area. Working in a small company gives you a much broader experience, both of the technology and business.

                        I think this is a reasonable generalization, though organizations can fight this tendency. I tend to think we do, though we have very specific initiatives to tackle this very problem.

                        > You clearly thrive in a big company environment, I definitely don't.

                        So “thrive” is a bit of a strong characterization, but I can say I’ve pretty well adapted to my current environment.

                        Please also don’t let me lead anyone to believe that everything is perfect in Big Corp land (here or anywhere I suppose). As you hint at, it’s all about the trade offs you’re willing to make at any given point in your career.

                        I guess that’s what I was mostly trying to point out in my original comment.

                      • rajacombinator 9 days ago

                        Good post. But I’ve definitely learned more as an engineer from architecting greenfield systems from scratch vs working at a big corp where I had no say and often no need to know about large parts of the architecture I was dealing with, since I was just tinkering on small cogs in a huge system. (Very impactful tinkering, mind you.)

                        • arandr0x 8 days ago

                          I have the reverse experience : I did tons of technically challenging greenfield projects that were pretty much using my IQ, and didn't start building skills and work habits (the stuff employers actually pay for) until after I was made to also maintain one of the greenfield projects.

                          I haven't and will never be what people tend to call a purely maintenance programmer, but the parts of my job that interact with existing systems are more challenging, more important, and teach me more (from looking at the patterns in existing code) than the greenfield parts.

                          Where the misconceptions come from is it's easier to be "good enough" when you do maintenance, so a lot of people don't try to understand the existing context, don't interact with non-technical people, and don't stretch themselves to understand the business, because they mistakenly think their job is writing code.

                          • jqcoffey 9 days ago

                            Thanks! And in rereading with your comment in mind I should probably have moderated my "learns more," to something more like, "learns different things, but not necessarily less."

                          • Justsignedup 8 days ago

                            When you build products with a shelf-life of 6 months, you can go crazy, cut corners, don't write tests, etc.

                            When you build products with a shelf-life of 6 years, you care deeply about reliability, and maintainability.

                            When you have low scale, problems are small. When you have large scale, code gets complex because you can't afford to be inefficient

                            • flurdy 8 days ago

                              Most products with a shelf-life of 6 years, started as one expected to have a 6 months shelf-life...

                              • rietta 8 days ago

                                The conversation usually goes "just deploy it now and we'll fix the bugs later".

                            • ddebernardy 8 days ago

                              > I've managed from 2 (and was therefore an IC) to ~40 people.

                              ~40? I'm assuming you're counting your skips. If so, a better word to convey what you meant would have been to say that you were directing them, to indicate you had skips and were actually managing a half-dozen or so managers. If not, how does one manage to keep track of ~40 relationships (plus other colleagues) in a 4\b80h week?

                              • derf_ 8 days ago

                                At one point I had a boss with (roughly) 50 direct reports. To paraphrase him describing how he did it: "badly".

                                The company later was able to hire more managers and take the load off of him (and in fact he went back to being an IC eventually). But these things happen in periods of rapid growth, despite everyone knowing they're a bad idea.

                                • Aeolun 8 days ago

                                  I’ve never ever heard a manager describe the people they’re managing without counting the full tree below them.

                                • Aeolun 8 days ago

                                  > In a large company I think the major stress is knowing whether you still have a voice that carries any weight.

                                  And whether your voice will do any good in general, even if people listen to it. The organisational mass of a big corp is ridiculous. You can spent your entire day pushing and only manage to shift the course a few meters.

                                  • untog 8 days ago

                                    > probably going to learn more doing the startup

                                    This jumped out at me, too. Learn more about what is my immediate though. Working in a large company you will learn a lot about project management and navigating through existing systems, structures and so on. Less glamorous than what you might learn at a startup but IMO no less useful.

                                    • fhbdukfrh 8 days ago

                                      Having done both i wouldn't categorize the work you do at a startup as glamorous. A lot of the jobs and tasks you'd never be asked to do at bigco become the responsibility of everyone at a startup out of necessity, not efficiency or choice. Things like covering a support phone, or training users or marathon sales trips.

                                    • failrate 8 days ago

                                      I'm going to cowardly agree with you both, simultaneously: the potential to learn in a startup vs big business is great, but you will learn radically different things.

                                      I feel like it is a horses for courses situation where some people will thrive in one environment and flounder in the other.

                                      Different kinds of burnout in both environments, too.

                                      • jimkri 8 days ago

                                        What do you do if you think your voice does not carry any weight while working at a growing startup?

                                        • gkilmain 8 days ago

                                          Is it regarding product or code? Perhaps try changing how you deliver the message. Ultimately if its an issue of your peers not respecting you and therefore tuning out your message well that is almost impossible to overcome.

                                        • executesorder66 9 days ago

                                          > the author

                                          You're on HN and you don't know who Paul Graham is?

                                          • jqcoffey 9 days ago

                                            I do know who he is. I just chose to refer to him as the author ;).

                                            • majewsky 8 days ago

                                              That's a very good attitude. It's never a good sign when someone judges arguments based on who voiced them.

                                            • fouc 8 days ago

                                              Using the term "the author" is better because the article was 9 years ago, Paul Graham doesn't necessarily hold the same beliefs now.

                                            • kartickv 8 days ago

                                              I wonder how one would structure a big company to keep it more agile. Some thoughts:

                                              - Salaries would be lower, so that people coming for the money wouldn't. There's be more variable pay. This will eliminate the "who cares if the product fails? I get a big paycheque anyway" attitude I've seen in a big company.

                                              - When a product fails, each individual on that team will have something to lose: skin in the game. Maybe he won't get a bonus. Or will get paid less next year. Or gets demoted one level. Or something.

                                              - Each VP would have the flexibility to pay his team the way he wants. The only thing he'll be held accountable for is the results. No salary band for each level, etc.

                                              - He'll also be able to hire people he thinks are better. Maybe people who've been a founder or early employee of a startup more than people who've worked at other big bureaucratic companies.

                                              - Engineering practices won't be centrally enforced, as they're in some big companies. If a team believes that unit testing every class, or code reviews that drag on for weeks, or <insert other practice here> have a low ROI, they'll be able to choose different practices. Maybe each (S)VP would get to define his team's practices.

                                              These are just ideas. Maybe you can come up with better ones.

                                              What would you to do to make a big company more like a startup?

                                              • watwut 8 days ago

                                                - Seriously, having lower salary does not make people care more. There are plenty of lazy people who don't care who are not paid maximum possible.

                                                - You will have people unwilling to work on risky projects. Good engineers assigned to troubled projects will be resentful more then normally and leave faster.

                                                • kartickv 8 days ago

                                                  > Seriously, having lower salary does not make people care more.

                                                  It does, when coupled with variable pay they could lose if their project doesn't work out.

                                                  > There are plenty of lazy people who don't care who are not paid maximum possible.

                                                  And those lazy people will then find jobs at other big companies, where they don't have to work hard and still make more, more appealing.

                                                  • matfil 8 days ago

                                                    What if employees were offered a substantial degree of choice in which projects they're assigned to. At that point, risky projects would need to have commensurate rewards attached. Does this solve the problem?

                                                    Valve, for example, seems to take this sort of approach, and while it's not without criticism, it seems to work okay for some people.

                                                    • watwut 8 days ago

                                                      That will attract gamblers and repulse systematic workers who care more about craft itself and less about estimating, choosing and negotiating projects.

                                                  • amyjess 8 days ago

                                                    That honestly sounds like a horrendous place to work. Paying people below market rate is exploitation, and making people work with a Sword of Damocles over their heads is a good way to increase the suicide rate.

                                                    • kartickv 8 days ago

                                                      Do you realise that you've described early-stage startups?

                                                      • amyjess 8 days ago

                                                        ...and those are companies I have no desire to ever work for.

                                                        I tried it once. The company was an abusive hellhole, and I'm glad I got out.

                                                        Edit: Also, if you're working at an early-stage startup and making below market rate, you better be a founder or your employer is screwing you over.

                                                        • kartickv 8 days ago

                                                          That's your opinion. There are people who're willing to earn less salary and more variable pay, and those people would be fine with early-stage startups and with my proposal.

                                                    • 8 days ago
                                                      [deleted]
                                                      • nostrademons 8 days ago

                                                        If you're going to do that, why bother having the big company at all? You've just described a startup - why not just go start a startup where you get all those conditions yourself, and also cut through a lot of bureaucratic & legal red tape and get to enjoy the full fruits of your labor.

                                                        If you're worried about risk and spreading your bets, why not start a venture fund that invests small amounts in lots of little startups and takes a percentage of the success, the way YCombinator does it?

                                                        • kartickv 8 days ago

                                                          You're going to have big companies, anyway, so why not make them more productive? My proposal includes variable pay, so you can enjoy the fruits of your labor more than you can in today's big companies like Microsoft and Google.

                                                        • toomuchtodo 8 days ago

                                                          If you’re working for below market rate, you might be passionate, but you’re still making a poor decision. Don’t let emotions sabotage your financial well-being.

                                                          • kartickv 8 days ago

                                                            Do you realise that you've argued that nobody should choose to work at an early-stage startup?

                                                            Your salary is below market rate, but not when you include variable pay, in startups, and in my proposal.

                                                            • toomuchtodo 8 days ago

                                                              Yes. Nobody except founders should work at an early stage startup. Anyone else is likely throwing their time away at below market rate. Remember, most startups fail. You're advocating for treating the job as a lottery ticket. Might as well make market rate and invest in companies where you have better information.

                                                              • kartickv 8 days ago

                                                                That's your opinion. There are people who'll accept lower salary and higher variable pay, and for them, my suggested option is no worse than working at an early stage company in terms of risk. Actually slightly less risky, since they don't have to worry about the company going bankrupt, they'll have a comfortable office space, a prestigious name on their resume, their relatives will be impressed by it, etc.

                                                          • fhbdukfrh 8 days ago

                                                            This is kind of like asking what would you do to make a donkey more like a zebra?

                                                            You can paint some stripes on it but it's still a donkey. They are fundamentally different creatures.

                                                            You can instill some startup practices at a bigco, just like a start up can benefit from some organization and structure, but they are not variations of the same beast

                                                            • kartickv 8 days ago

                                                              You're lost in your own analogy. Big companies are going to exist, anyway, so can we make them more productive?

                                                        • GuB-42 9 days ago

                                                          We aren't meant to have a boss.

                                                          We also aren't meant to use computers, let alone build them. Big and complex organizations are required in order to build big and complex things. And it turns out that it works best by having bosses.

                                                          Now, I work most of the time for large companies and what I notice is that you have much more freedom than you might think. But you have to work for it. You may not get to choose a framework, you may have to follow a process, but you still need to make decisions, even if they are on a small scale. You may be handed over procedures and recipes, don't follow them blindly, try to understand them and maybe improve on them.

                                                          No matter where you are working, you are not a robot. You are the human, the problem solver, the decision maker, the repetitive tasks are for the computer. As a programmer, there is always a way to make a boring job more interesting in a way that benefits the company. And if your boss is competent, he will appreciate it.

                                                          As for what a boss is, I always see my boss as a partner, not a "superior". My boss works for me, he looks at the big picture, meets with customers, and feeds me work. I work for my boss by doing the work he wants me to do.

                                                          • xfitm3 8 days ago

                                                            I generally agree with you. I would opine with we aren’t meant to have a single boss. If you own a business your customers are effectively your collective boss with a much more diverse set of satisfaction criteria. In my opinion this is a better way to love and plays into many of the points you raised.

                                                            • phillc73 8 days ago

                                                              > Big and complex organizations are required in order to build big and complex things. And it turns out that it works best by having bosses.

                                                              Is that true? Having bosses has been proven as the best way to organise big and complex organisations?

                                                              In a capitalist economy a hierarchical organisational structure is for sure the overwhelmingly most common structure, but there is an alternative; a flat non-hierarchical structure such as in a worker's co-operative.[1][2]

                                                              I'd like to see a study comparing the two and drawing a conclusion as to which is best.

                                                              [1] http://www.morningstarco.com/

                                                              [2] http://www.enliveningedge.org/organizations/morning-stars-su...

                                                            • imgabe 8 days ago

                                                              People have always read way too much into this essay instead of looking at it for what it is: marketing material for Y Combinator.

                                                              It doesn't speak to you? Ok. That's fine. You aren't the target audience. Obviously there have always been millions upon millions of people who live perfectly happy, productive, successful lives working for large organizations. However, some subset of people have always felt dissatisfied in this arrangement. For some of those, this essay might be the spark they need to look around and find something that suits them better (and maybe Y Combinator can fund them.)

                                                              I'm feeling old that the average HN reader anymore doesn't seem to know who Paul Graham is.

                                                              • paulcole 8 days ago

                                                                Yeah pretty obviously pandering to the desired audience:

                                                                > There may be a similar problem with the way we work: a normal job may be as bad for us intellectually as white flour or sugar is for us physically.

                                                                Could almost hear all the heads nodding in agreement.

                                                                If only he'd mentioned intermittent fasting or the fact that the hiring process for developers is broken...

                                                                • edanm 8 days ago

                                                                  FYI, this was written in 2008, before IF became a thing.

                                                                  • paulcole 7 days ago

                                                                    Back then we just called it anorexia. Really shows what marketing can do.

                                                                    • MarsAscendant 6 days ago

                                                                      It's deeply unfair to compare a wilful, meaningful calorie intake reduction with a pathological anxiety over any sort of consumption of food.

                                                                      If you didn't know the difference "back then", it was due to ignorance, not a marketing image.

                                                                • CoolGuySteve 8 days ago

                                                                  I wonder if pg ever wrote something along the lines of that old pinnacle of masturbatory pandering: "The first differentiator of an elite developer is to read industry blogs, which you're already doing, so congratulations!"

                                                                  I feel like I've read it before from him but I'm having trouble remembering now 10 years later.

                                                              • everdev 9 days ago

                                                                > groups of 8 work well; by 20 they're getting hard to manage; and a group of 50 is really unwieldy

                                                                I made more money at my web agency when I had 10 employees than when I had 20. I kept growing the business through inertia and the thought that bigger was better. I decided to sell with 20 employees rather than drop back down to 10, but by 20 it was unweildy for me to manage on my own.

                                                                The overhead described in the article from growing beyond a group of 10 I felt everyday. If I had to do it over I'd stay at 10 or less for as long as possible and prioritize connection and profits over revenue and headcount.

                                                                • jdhawk 8 days ago

                                                                  Or add another layer of Management?

                                                                  • everdev 8 days ago

                                                                    That's what I did when I grew to 20 and part of what increased our revenue but decreased our profitability.

                                                                    The article talks about the challenges of managing managers and my experience lines up with what the author describes.

                                                                    • jacquesm 8 days ago

                                                                      Companies also have economies of scale. The 10-to-30 transition is so hard because it has to pass through 20, the moment when overhead as a fraction of total turnover is at a maximum. After that things get better again. But getting through that is a really hard thing to do.

                                                                • dazc 9 days ago

                                                                  Once I had a great job, I managed myself most of the time and was trusted to just 'get on with it'.

                                                                  Then the company got busier and started hiring more people who were less able to manage themselves. As a consequence, I acquired a manager who wasn't quite sure what he was supposed to be doing. This led to situations where he would need to do things that justified his existence, like phoning me every hour to ask 'how it was going', 'where was I, and so on...

                                                                  Needless to say, I started enjoying my job much less...

                                                                  Then, when it became obvious my new manager wasn't coping so well, they gave him an assistant. You can probably guess how that panned out?

                                                                  • vinceguidry 9 days ago

                                                                    > This led to situations where he would need to do things that justified his existence, like phoning me every hour to ask 'how it was going', 'where was I, and so on...

                                                                    You missed a great opportunity to manage upwards. Surely you have some meaningless menial tasks in your job that you hate to perform? Excellent delegation material!

                                                                    You know what they say, many hands make for lighter work. They hired him an assistant? Looks like you just acquired a whole department!

                                                                    • jon-wood 9 days ago

                                                                      This just sounds like you ended up with a bad manager, rather than a failure inherent to all management. A good manager would have recognised that you're pretty much capable of knowing where to focus your effort, and generally get that call right - given that they can be more or less hands off, but provide you with a screen from things that really shouldn't be getting near you in the first place, and a route to push things up the chain when needed without having to shepard them along.

                                                                    • sonnyblarney 8 days ago

                                                                      The ability to organize into large groups is one of the greatest social innovations in history, and is a fundamental aspect of civil society.

                                                                      I worked at a company that had an 'individual' service, and a 'business' service.In Spain, Italy and Greece and S. America - our customers were 'individuals'. In Germany, France and UK, they were 'business' accounts. Those economies with more 'business' accounts have somewhat more advanced industrial basis than those with 'individual' accounts.

                                                                      There are many things that can only be developed at scale, and certain kinds of specialization that only become available at scale.

                                                                      Only a company with X people can start to invest in Y kinds of things, which is a huge part of their competitive advantage.

                                                                      Yes, big cos are seemingly more inefficient at the individual level, but their scale actually might imply greater efficiency.

                                                                      Put another way - someone at only 50% individual efficiency at a big corp, may be 'creating more value' than otherwise.

                                                                      • _yosefk 9 days ago

                                                                        If you work on/for a startup and that startup succeeds, it will more often than not have to grow. If you're unlike Paul Graham who sold his startup and then invested in countless others and made lots of money but did not keep working on the thing he'd built - meaning, if you're what he likes to call maker as opposed to primarily a money-maker - you will want to keep working on the thing you built. And this desire to keep working on that thing is what will prompt you to adapt your views on group size and how people thrive and lions and sugary food. And when you'll see what a hundred people can make out of what was started by ten, it will be very rewarding.

                                                                        • lmm 9 days ago

                                                                          > you will want to keep working on the thing you built. And this desire to keep working on that thing is what will prompt you to adapt your views on group size and how people thrive and lions and sugary food.

                                                                          I've grown attached to projects in small companies and large ones, sure. What you've written can be read as an explanation for why people continue to work at companies even as they grow larger and get worse, rather than any contradiction of what Graham said.

                                                                          > And when you'll see what a hundred people can make out of what was started by ten, it will be very rewarding.

                                                                          Really? I don't think I've experienced anything rewarding/inspiring being made by more than ten people; even in large companies, the most rewarding/inspiring projects I've worked on have been those that were worked on by a small, relatively isolated team. Scaling up may be necessary and/or lucrative, but I doubt it could ever be as rewarding as making the thing, and AIUI the economics research backs that up - productivity is concentrated in small companies, successful companies grow until they get too bloated to be successful rather than stable (because if you're successful, growing is the default path) rather than improving through growth.

                                                                          • _yosefk 8 days ago

                                                                            A group of 100 is 10 groups of 10. Does the autonomy of the group of 10 shrink as predicted by Paul Graham's "virtual person" argument? It might or it might not - and it's certainly not obvious that the constraints imposed on a 10-people company by their relationships with the external world are any better or worse, from any given angle, than the constraints imposed on a 10-people team by their relationships with the company employing the team.

                                                                            Why do people contribute to projects like Linux or LLVM without getting paid for it? (Of course lots of them get paid to do this, but many are not.) It's not exactly easy calories for a caged lion, the way Graham describes a corporate job taken by recent college grads. Instead, people choose to work in these large groups because they want to make an impact. You can instead contribute to TinyCC or MenuetOS - smaller team, less impact. Are Linux or LLVM uninspiring? Were they only inspiring when they were too small for most of their current practical uses?

                                                                            If productivity is concentrated in small companies - or companies of size X - why aren't companies of this size drive the other companies out of business? I think that market realities point in the direction of there being economies of scale and diseconomies of scale, without a single one-size-fits-all procedure for determining the optimal firm size for any particular endeavor.

                                                                            • matfil 8 days ago

                                                                              I would be interested to work in a "10 groups of 10"-shaped company. I've never really encountered one, though, and I think it would be fairly unstable. Example failure mode: someone starts grumbling about "silos", and before you know it there's an effort afoot to standardise some or other technology or practice across the groups. At that point, one of the groups that's gone furthest in terms of formalising/making rules for that area almost always end up winning, and there's a gradual levelling up of process, and thus levelling down of autonomy.

                                                                              • hopler 8 days ago

                                                                                It's interesting that YC's moneymaking model is to take small companies and turn them into big companies (by growth or acquisition) that pg claims are bad. Is YC a knnowing scam to soak dumb money, killing the supposedly wonderful small-team products in the process, or is the post misguided or disingenuous?

                                                                                • lmm 8 days ago

                                                                                  The claim is that big companies are uninspiring drudgery for the people who work there, not that scaling up isn't an effective way to make money (though VC as a category is known for poor overall returns). There's no contradiction - indeed in http://www.paulgraham.com/schlep.html pg argues that a lot of moneymaking opportunities are overlooked because of the drudgery involved.

                                                                                • lmm 8 days ago

                                                                                  > Does the autonomy of the group of 10 shrink as predicted by Paul Graham's "virtual person" argument? It might or it might not - and it's certainly not obvious that the constraints imposed on a 10-people company by their relationships with the external world are any better or worse, from any given angle, than the constraints imposed on a 10-people team by their relationships with the company employing the team.

                                                                                  A 10-person company inherently has a fairly high level of autonomy; the outside world can impose broad constraints but there's a pretty low limit on how much you can interfere in day-to-day activity when you're not in the building. It's conceivable that a 10-person team in a group of 100 could have that much autonomy, but it's extremely rare IME - e.g. I've never known a 10-person team within a 100-person company to have the authority to hire at will; it's rare for a team to be allowed to change hosting providers without that decision being made at higher level.

                                                                                  > Why do people contribute to projects like Linux or LLVM without getting paid for it?

                                                                                  Leaving aside that most contributors are paid by employers to work on those projects, unpaid contributors to those projects won't be in the kind of boss-team relationship Graham is criticising. Open-source contributors inherently have a much higher level of autonomy because there's no "the company pays your salary" dynamic.

                                                                                  > Are Linux or LLVM uninspiring? Were they only inspiring when they were too small for most of their current practical uses?

                                                                                  Yes, exactly. (Specific subprojects within them might still be inspiring)

                                                                                  > If productivity is concentrated in small companies - or companies of size X - why aren't companies of this size drive the other companies out of business?

                                                                                  They do, all the time; the normal business lifecycle is that an innovative company outcompetes the bloated incumbent, but gradually bloats up itself, until a smaller, more innovative company outcompetes it.

                                                                            • rafiki6 8 days ago

                                                                              My fundamental issue with this viewpoint is that it takes away the inherent entrepreneurship that exists in an employee/employer business relationship. Whether I'm on a team of 10 in an organization of a 100 or a team of 100 in an organization of 10,000, the reality is I still have much work to do to be valuable. I'd argue that if you are truly ambitious and hardworking, making your way up a corporate ladder can be just as challenging, risky and rewarding as being a startup founder. It requires time, dedication, sacrifice, risk-taking and developing skills that most people who chose programming as a career seem to forget about. People who program shouldn't box themselves into being code monkeys. I still need to pitch ideas at my corporate job to ensure they are valuable. I still need to use other people's code as any person building a shiny web app will do with open source projects and frameworks. I still need to manage finances, ask for raises, manage budgets. I still need to deal with HR, accounting, sales, product management, project management, marketing etc. At the end of the day a truly valuable "employee" is one who's really figured out the system and learned to sell themselves within it. As a startup founder you are still beholden to many people much in the same way as an employee who's working up the ranks. As a founder you will still deal with unproductive slow people. You will deal with aggressive investors, finicky customers etc. I think a corporate job is what you make of it. It's safer in some cases sure, although since we work in an at-will employment world, your never fully safe. But if you really want to grow, you need to take risks and try things and learn all the same skills an entrepreneur would need to.

                                                                              • jondubois 9 days ago

                                                                                I've been trying to escape having a corporate day job for 8 years now precisely because it doesn't feel natural; I constantly get the urge to escape and I change companies often.

                                                                                I hope that this kind of article doesn't promote the mindset that if you're not financially successful by the time you turn 30, then you're either lazy or unskilled (I.e. thinking that leaders are fundamentally different than employees). There are a lot of business leaders today who harbor significant contempt towards their own employees; you can see it by how they talk about their employees and how they interact with them.

                                                                                It might seem like some employees aren't ambitious, don't take initiative and don't want to step outside of their comfort zone but that's rarely true; most employees do want to take control of their lives and they devise plans to make it happen; but dumb luck is just a much more powerful force. You can't beat dumb luck.

                                                                                • rafiki6 8 days ago

                                                                                  Why not start by becoming a consultant? I think that's always a good question to ask yourself. Consulting has many of the challenges you'd face running your own business, except the product you're selling is yourself.

                                                                                  • jondubois 8 days ago

                                                                                    I did do contracting in the past and I do consulting from time to time related to an open source project that I created but it's not enough to turn into a full time business yet.

                                                                                  • rocannon 8 days ago

                                                                                    Please do not be discouraged. You can't always beat dumb luck, but you can certainly fight it. Also, there's a saying: "you make your own luck". It sounds glib, but there's some truth to it.

                                                                                  • dang 9 days ago
                                                                                    • hevi_jos 9 days ago

                                                                                      I agree with this article, as I have experienced what is working for myself and working for others.

                                                                                      On the other hand, people need other personalities to complement their personalities. Organizing this environment is not simple for most people, as it requires a complete different set of skills than most technical work.

                                                                                      People will have to enter a company to get this environment, as it is already created for you. Usually not well created, but something is better than nothing.

                                                                                      IMHO Paul Graham acquired these skills from his now wife, thanks to that they created YC and you have all this environment of mutual support, the "family", the "Church".

                                                                                      It always surprising when you go to the US, how isolated most people is from each other.

                                                                                      This makes PG advice extremely damaging for most people in the US. The technical people that will listen to it are already not very social. Without social support, you will perish. No matter how good you are, people are social creatures.

                                                                                      • austincheney 9 days ago

                                                                                        So completely torn on this.

                                                                                        In the corporate world I completely agree. I feel like a vegetable. I am numb and stare out a window. I enjoy taking long walks and picking fruit on my corporate neighbor's property.

                                                                                        In addition to working for a Fortune 50 company I am also an officer in the army. In the army this idea about bosses is and large organizations is mostly (not completely though) upside down. In the military this can really work for you if you are engaged and your primary leader isn't a criminal.

                                                                                        This is perhaps the biggest difference between these worlds, and I cannot put it into words in a way that could possibly relate until you have shared a similar experience yourself. Seeing and living this difference shapes your world perspective more than any other objective quality (there are catastrophic subjective qualities that will shape anybody's world).

                                                                                        • pram 8 days ago

                                                                                          Perhaps from your perspective as an officer, but being enlisted was a kafkaesque nightmare. The management structure from the lowest NCO up was typically completely inflexible and almost antagonistic at times. You are committed to the most mind numbing busywork (like shoveling snow or shredding a ton of paper) that there’s absolutely no way to gain satisfaction from. Self actualization is pretty much an impossibility.

                                                                                          Being a numb vegetable is spending 16 hour days in Iraq guarding a fence. Nothing in the civilian/corporate world comes close. Also you can always quit ;D

                                                                                          • tome 9 days ago

                                                                                            > I cannot put it into words in a way that could possibly relate until you have shared a similar experience yourself

                                                                                            Could you try? This is really interesting!

                                                                                            • austincheney 9 days ago

                                                                                              Bear with me on this...

                                                                                              In the corporate space many of the younger people I have worked with feel, to me, extraordinarily fragile. We all have fear and we all make mistakes. Sometimes I would rather shoot myself in the face than point out a minor shortcoming. Sometimes the result is a long series of excuses and justifications (deliberately not listening and having a one way conversation with themselves to you) and on rare occasions the response is immediate hostility. I don't know everything, but I have been in this line of work for 20 years and I do feel justified in thinking I might be able to offer advice or technical guidance to somebody who has been doing it for 6 months or less.

                                                                                              Older developers I have worked with in the corporate world tend to be a bit rigid and stuck in their ways, which is completely expected. Although this is not a surprise it does prove a bit frustrating when it comes to exploring newer technologies or open-mindedness to new approaches.

                                                                                              In the military you often don't get a vote upon the technology, the environment, the people you work with, or really anything. You realize you are an adult. You suck it up and try to make the best of it. As crappy as that may at first sound it is a forcing function with some really positive results. You have to be flexible. You have to embrace new things. You have to work with all kinds of people.

                                                                                              Confrontation is common in the military. There really is a such thing as positive confrontations. Positive confrontations are necessary to develop people. This exists in the corporate world as well, but its generally hidden behind directors and senior managers where tiny contributors like me don't see it.

                                                                                              Ownership of work is vital to motivation. The military has figured this out. Some of the corporate world has figured this out, but usually not. People have to be allowed to fail in order to feel the pressure to grow. Let's not forget corporate employees are adults and they need mentorship not helicopter parents.

                                                                                              As an example tell a JavaScript developer they can't use their favorite framework. Tell them they actually have to write original code and solve problems. Oh, the crying...

                                                                                              • tboyd47 8 days ago

                                                                                                > In the military you often don't get a vote upon the technology, the environment, the people you work with, or really anything. You realize you are an adult. You suck it up and try to make the best of it. As crappy as that may at first sound it is a forcing function with some really positive results. You have to be flexible. You have to embrace new things. You have to work with all kinds of people.

                                                                                                Sometimes new things very clearly flashes in the pan, and sometimes people are clearly on their way out the door, and applying a forcing function doesn't change that, though.

                                                                                                That dev who "cried" and was "hostile" for not being able to use a framework, was it really hostility or just frustration?

                                                                                                Just something to think about! :) Thanks for sharing.

                                                                                                EDIT: I removed most of my reply because it really was too much.

                                                                                                • clebio 8 days ago

                                                                                                  Despite your last sentence, your reply is quite knee-jerk, and rudely rejects what the parent was asked to elaborate on.

                                                                                                  > Did you ever consider...

                                                                                                  Well, yeah, they probably have given 20 years thinking about this. And the nuance of a reply would probably take time and several more paragraphs.

                                                                                                  I am genuinely interested to hear this view of the military, since I've heard that sentiment elsewhere before (that it is effective specifically in ways that corporate entities fail comically), but having no experience (no interest) in joining-up, I haven't understood what's behind it. I would _love_ for the parent to elaborate and welcome more. Sure, a lot of software isn't life or death, but that doesn't mean we can't learn from effective teams and organizations, wherever they are.

                                                                                                  • tboyd47 8 days ago

                                                                                                    You do have a point. Perhaps it was rude of me to butt in here; nevertheless, I stand by my view, misplaced or not.

                                                                                                • MarsAscendant 6 days ago

                                                                                                  > In the corporate space many of the younger people I have worked with feel, to me, extraordinarily fragile.

                                                                                                  This reminds me of a piece I've read on Habr, a Russian platform in a format similar to HN. An older dev was talking about how the younger-gen devs he's working with act as if they feel personally attacked (perhaps they do) after their mistake was pointed out to them. He mentioned the not-being-able-to-work-with-favorite-framework bit, but the focus was elsewhere.

                                                                                                  The older dev was mostly talking about bearing one's responsibility and being able to take it – as in, withstand stress and suck it up when necessary – which the younger devs have a problem with.

                                                                                                  • sudosteph 8 days ago

                                                                                                    That makes a lot of sense. I've noticed that as somebody who comes from more of a technical support / operations background professionally (but from a standard dev-oriented CS education educationally), that many of my favorite work peers are folks with a military background - and they have that attitude you described. For whatever reason, I've found far more of those people among the support and operations crowd than the dev crowd, and it's really made me frustrated with developers who have that fragile ego you described.

                                                                                                    • simagule 8 days ago

                                                                                                      One of the latest joe rogan podcasts had a great guest on who goes into explaining why the younger generation are more brittle. as they are not given the chance to take risks and learn from them growing up resulting in them being scared to take then. Worth a liste

                                                                                                      https://youtu.be/FG6HbWw2RF4

                                                                                                      • tome 9 days ago

                                                                                                        Thanks. You said

                                                                                                        > In the army this idea about bosses is and large organizations is mostly (not completely though) upside down. In the military this can really work for you if you are engaged and your primary leader isn't a criminal.

                                                                                                        Does that means that in the military people lower in the ranks are much more self-motivated and self-directed?

                                                                                                        • austincheney 9 days ago

                                                                                                          Yes, when the proper leadership is in place. If you are given a large amount time with no responsibility and no structure it comes down to an individual's personality like anywhere else.

                                                                                                          The minimal expectation is that low ranking service members have the proper pieces in place to make good decisions. When they make bad decisions it is them plus their boss (and sometimes the boss's boss) that gets destroyed. This puts pressure on the boss to ensure their people are well informed. In the corporate world if a contributor fails horribly you simply fire them and wash your hands of it. It is highly unlikely the boss will receive legal prosecution for the contributor's failures even those failures result from a lack of governance or proper policy.

                                                                                                          • tonyedgecombe 9 days ago

                                                                                                            The cynic in me would say obedient rather than self-motivated.

                                                                                                    • NKCSS 9 days ago

                                                                                                      I love this quote: "Which means it's doubly important to hire the best people. Mediocre hires hurt you twice: they get less done, but they also make you big, because you need more of them to solve a given problem."

                                                                                                      • darkerside 8 days ago

                                                                                                        Perhaps controversial to say, and I'm a huge fan of Paul Graham and his thinking, but this article has not aged well. Or perhaps my understanding of organizations has simply matured. I think the biggest problem, for which this article was a lagging indicator, with working for large companies pre-2008 was that they hadn't really figured out how to work with technology yet. Disclaimer, I've never worked for a truly huge firm, but I get the sense folks are getting closer and closer to figuring it out. We've learned to build and support disruptive units inside of larger ones, managers are more often technically skilled and able to properly support their employees, and we've adopted more agile ways of writing software. Or maybe I'm just lucky to work where I do!

                                                                                                        • golemotron 8 days ago

                                                                                                          > Perhaps controversial to say, and I'm a huge fan of Paul Graham and his thinking

                                                                                                          Does Paul Graham have cooties? What happened?

                                                                                                        • exergy 9 days ago

                                                                                                          This article again.

                                                                                                          sigh

                                                                                                          What grates me about Paul's writing is the sheer pomposity of it all, coupled with a tone that deals only in absolutes. There is no space for doubt, for hesitancy, for understatement. It is grandiosity dialed up to 11 in a way I've seen precious few "essayists" do. Even that word grates me. Oh, no sir! Paul is above mere 'blogging'. He is an "essayist" because his blogposts feature more than 2500 words. Look at what he claims:

                                                                                                          > 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. In an artificial world, only extremists live naturally.

                                                                                                          > It will always suck to work for large organizations, and the larger the organization, the more it will suck.

                                                                                                          My god! One must have a super limited and convenient worldview to inflict such idiotic statements onto the world with such a wanton disregard of anything approaching sensitivity. Here's Jeff Atwoods take on it: https://blog.codinghorror.com/paul-grahams-participatory-nar...

                                                                                                          It's an opinion I sympathise with a lot more than PG's.

                                                                                                          I work for a big company (CERN). Group of thousands upon thousands. It's wonderful here. I wouldn't trade it for the next "Uber of...". My 'boss' is just someone who has worked on my topic for a lot longer than me, and is therefore a veritable treasure chest of knowledge. I LOVE working for him because I learn a shitload on a weekly basis, and the projects that he is responsible for align with my interests. I LOVE working in my 'group of hundreds', because that group of hundreds can accomplish a lot more than a full-stack developer straight out of Stanford thinking he can disrupt everything just by ignoring zoning laws. I also imagine there are a significant portion of people working for places like NASA/ESA etc who share my view. Where does this jive with Mr Graham's World Of Absolutes?

                                                                                                          Further, even if we limit ourselves to the corporate world, 'groups of hundreds' can afford to do more than one guy. A large group can, for example, dedicate resources to lowering the environmental impact of the product chain, in a way that a three person startup couldn't. They can have customer service that a small startup just cannot match. Is all of that worthless?

                                                                                                          And if it isn't, just what is Graham getting at in this article? Is it limited to young graduates? Then why the far reaching claims and the excessive overreach? And if not, is he genuinely so delusional as to think he can speak for everyone?

                                                                                                          I will give another example, at the risk of outing myself, just because this article is still fucking grinding my gears. My mum is working on the Polio program. In a couple of years, they will have rid the world of this killer disease. Millions of lives saved. It's not necessarily the glorious work environment that gives Paul Graham a hardon. Doesn't mean it 'sucks'. Just means that most of the people working there are capable of understanding that there are some necessary evils involved in taking on such an enormous challenge. You need to talk to Politicians the world over. You need to coordinate the door to door vaccine distribution. You need to balance the books for millions and millions of dollars in funding. You need to set up secure enclaves for staff that are going into dangerous zones and risking their lives for the project. I would like to see some fucking bossless Ycombinator graduate try their hand at that.

                                                                                                          • hatty 9 days ago

                                                                                                            Thank you. I completely agree. It’s implicit in your points about your manager and work group, but I’ll add that at bossless startup you can’t walk down the hallway and chat with different subject matter experts in hard science fields. Another point I would like to make is that working for a big company gives me the flexibility and means to continue going to school. I know graduate degrees can be controversial on HN. But getting a graduate degree is a life goal of mine. I wasn’t ready at the end of my undergrad to take on debt.

                                                                                                            • chosenbreed37 9 days ago

                                                                                                              > Another point I would like to make is that working for a big company gives me the flexibility and means to continue going to school.

                                                                                                              Sure...but you could still have this option (potentially at a cost) working for yourself

                                                                                                              > I know graduate degrees can be controversial on HN.

                                                                                                              Oh...I've not come across that. If I'm not mistaken I can recall contributions for Masters graduates and PhD holders...

                                                                                                            • Robin_Message 9 days ago

                                                                                                              Agree. Isn't there some theory that satisfaction is linked to autonomy, mastery, and purpose ?

                                                                                                              Sounds like pg is only interested in autonomy, whereas you are also taking mastery and purpose into account.

                                                                                                              • typingduck 8 days ago

                                                                                                                It comes across that you're not a PG fan :) but I think that clouds your response here a little.

                                                                                                                CERN (thankfully) is not a company, let alone a big company. I don't think it's fair to counter argue on this point. I've worked across research, big company and startups.

                                                                                                                I would argue that the way researchers work is a lot more akin to the 'natural' way of working (free from such artificial constraints as quarterly shareholder value) that this article is trying to get at.

                                                                                                                • clebio 8 days ago

                                                                                                                  Thank you for this. Counter to what one of your detractors said, I actually went and read Atwood's post (again) at the point at which you posted it in your comment here. Then I read Idle Word's post, which Atwood references. Then I came back here and finished reading your post -- that specific order (if for some reason your detractor thinks it matters). That was earlier this morning. Then I came back just now to read your post again. So, thank you. Bravo.

                                                                                                                  • jacquesm 8 days ago

                                                                                                                    No email in your profile so I'll write this here:

                                                                                                                    Thank you for your counterpoint, I wished I'd studied some branch of physics so I could have joined your ranks, alas all I could do to stay afloat was to use the one skill I have, to program computers which put me more on the path that PG prefers but I still see there is plenty of validity in humans working in larger groups and feel this blog post is one that really made its point poorly. Best regards, Jacques.

                                                                                                                    • exergy 8 days ago

                                                                                                                      I'm actually a mechanical engineer! So for sure there is a whole spectrum of science-ish people here, not just physicists. In fact, programmers are central to much of the science that CERN does, starting with 'Trigger' which actually decides and filters out which minute fraction of all collisions are actually worthy of human attention.

                                                                                                                    • rajacombinator 9 days ago

                                                                                                                      I think his point more accurately could have been that working at a bigco will always suck - for the kind of people who like working at a startup. (Or “hackers” by his definition.) For many/most people, bigco is fine.

                                                                                                                      • exergy 9 days ago

                                                                                                                        Yep. Then why the overreach? Why this idiotic claim that ALL humans are like caged lions just desparate to be let free and roam the wild? This article is awful, and awfully myopic in the extreme.

                                                                                                                        • delhanty 9 days ago

                                                                                                                          Because it's a transparently self-serving article perhaps?

                                                                                                                          YC combinator is in the startup business, so of course PG is going to oversell the case for startups.

                                                                                                                          PG's stuff is hit and miss. Here's an example of a much better article by him:

                                                                                                                          Don't Talk to Corp Dev

                                                                                                                          http://www.paulgraham.com/corpdev.html

                                                                                                                          • amyjess 8 days ago

                                                                                                                            And encouraging the kinds of people who aren't compatible with the startup lifestyle (e.g. myself) to join startups is a recipe for disaster for not only the employee but the startup itself.

                                                                                                                            Successful startups require people who will do things that people who naturally gravitate towards big companies just aren't interested in doing. If you take someone (like me) who likes structure, regiment, and routine and idolizes people like Raymond Chen and put them in a key role in an early-stage startup, that's a recipe for a) the startup failing miserably, and b) the employee ending up on suicide watch.

                                                                                                                            It's in the business interests of startups to filter for those who would actually enjoy working at one, not to pressure the rest of the world into thinking they need to work for one.

                                                                                                                      • crimsonalucard 9 days ago

                                                                                                                        Isn't cern a government job? I would argue government jobs are different in the sense that there's less pressure to deliver. Thus your boss will likely give you an easier time.

                                                                                                                        • count 8 days ago

                                                                                                                          You've never had a government job, have you?

                                                                                                                          • typingduck 8 days ago

                                                                                                                            I have worked for the government (research, not much unlike cern) and I concur that it's completely different than working for what I believe anyone would refer to as 'a big company'. I'm pretty sure it doesn't even qualify to be referred to as a 'company'.

                                                                                                                        • MarsAscendant 6 days ago

                                                                                                                          Your writing reminds me a lot of a certain veteran of online conversations, kleinbl00. Have you heard of him?

                                                                                                                          He's not much of a "hacker", but his various comments on Reddit and Hubski are on a similar wavelength to yours.

                                                                                                                          • exergy 4 days ago

                                                                                                                            I haven't. Indeed, I just found out about Hubski from your post. It looks like a much more refreshing place than Reddit, and kleinbl00 seems to be pretty active on it.

                                                                                                                            One of my new year's resolution, however, is to quit Reddit, so I am in no mood to have a new network take its place :)

                                                                                                                          • 9 days ago
                                                                                                                            [deleted]
                                                                                                                            • titzer 9 days ago

                                                                                                                              > What grates me about Paul's writing is the sheer pomposity of it all,

                                                                                                                              >> It will always suck to work for large organizations, and the larger the organization, the more it will suck.

                                                                                                                              > My god! One must have a super limited and convenient worldview to inflict such idiotic statements onto the world with such a wanton disregard of anything approaching sensitivity.

                                                                                                                              Pot meet kettle.

                                                                                                                              My New Year's resolution: be less polar.

                                                                                                                              • xb121 9 days ago

                                                                                                                                CERN is not what he is talking about. Of course being employed in Europe by a publicly funded institution is great.

                                                                                                                                The people in Europe who actually work are suppressed and exploited.

                                                                                                                                • exergy 9 days ago

                                                                                                                                  Otherwise known in the industry as 'weaseling'.

                                                                                                                                  He doesn't explicitly exclude publicly funded institutions. He says working for big organizations will always suck. I quoted him verbatim. And this highlights my problem with him: absolutes.

                                                                                                                                  Also, does your final sentence insinuate that people at CERN aren't actually working?!

                                                                                                                                  • crimsonalucard 9 days ago

                                                                                                                                    He might implicitly exclude them? I wouldn't discount his post completely just because it has an absolutist tone. To do so would be absolutist yourself.

                                                                                                                                    • bxmeyers 9 days ago

                                                                                                                                      Like most public institutions, CERN is overstaffed and has produced comparatively little.

                                                                                                                                      Publicly funded people in Europe act and feel like royalty and build themselves Veblen goods. In several German cities, the only buildings that are in good shape are government buildings and universities.

                                                                                                                                      Normal people do not have money to paint their houses (if they have one, that's another thing only civil servants can afford).

                                                                                                                                      • ahartmetz 9 days ago

                                                                                                                                        Yeah, no. There is probably quite some inefficiency at CERN like at all large institutions, but none of the rest is true according to my observations. Even in Berlin, which is a relatively poor German city, there are plenty of well maintained private buildings of all kinds. I've also seen somewhat rundown looking government offices.

                                                                                                                                        • fujiters 8 days ago

                                                                                                                                          Having been to Germany a few times, I've not noticed anything like only government buildings being in good repair. Can you identify a few cities that are like this?

                                                                                                                                          • exergy 8 days ago

                                                                                                                                            I'm curious about this flurry of freshly created accounts that seem to be responding to me...?

                                                                                                                                        • moccachino 9 days ago

                                                                                                                                          Would you like to clarify:

                                                                                                                                          Which part of Europe are you talking about?

                                                                                                                                          What constitutes actual work?

                                                                                                                                          How are they suppressed and exploited?

                                                                                                                                        • vinceguidry 9 days ago

                                                                                                                                          Since you're criticizing PG's writing...

                                                                                                                                          1. You could have quoted Atwood's article briefly to capture his basic ideas rather than just jarringly moving on to your next point. Most people are going to finish your post first, then, if they're still interested, go read supplementary links.

                                                                                                                                          2. You could have just pointed out that you worked at CERN, making that whole paragraph about half as lengthy and ten times as punchy. "My group of hundreds does things Uber could never in a million years dream of doing. Or for that matter, YCombinator." Maybe leave that last one out.

                                                                                                                                          3. Once that sordid bit of egotism is out of the way, you could have dealt better with the obvious "well duh, working at CERN is way better than working at Uber!" C'mon now, PG's talking to the masses, not the guys smart enough to advance the state of human knowledge by the day.

                                                                                                                                          4. More space could have been given to the nuts and bolts of accomplishing real things in the real world that might include third-world politics than continuing to grind your ax on PG. Instead we get four measly sentences! You're already slumming it with us webdev bums, at least give us something to salivate over! Give us an essay of your own, big man!

                                                                                                                                          • exergy 9 days ago

                                                                                                                                            You say "well duh", but PG makes no effort to eliminate any "type" of large organization. He claims with no equivocation that working for all large organizations sucks. Surely you must admit that there must be smart people in many, many other large organizations, and not the exclusive domain of us super-smarties here at CERN! And those people see something of value in their circumstances and cannot be justifiably lumped along with caged lions (I know this metaphor causes uproar every time this article comes up, but he chose it not me!).

                                                                                                                                            Also, as to your last point, if it is in refernce to what I was talking about Polio, it _is_ endlessly interesting. UN gets a bad rap for being bureaucratic to the point of statis, but in fact, some of the hardest working people I know are employed there.

                                                                                                                                            Here's more about Polio to whet your appetite, with the MASSIVE caveat that this is second hand, non-expert knowledge vomited out off-the-cuff.

                                                                                                                                            Polio has been eliminated virtually everywhere on Earth with the exception of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria. There are some other places where vaccine-derived (kind of, there is more to it that I don't fully get) Polio sometimes rears its head when ineffective propagation occurs, specifically in Syria, where the war zone threw the entire operation into chaos. But mainly, it is problematic in the three countries. The trouble is, big parts of these regions are inaccessible, and therefore we don't know the details of how bad the situation may be, and how many households are unvaccinated. So one big challenge is how to make sure these countries (with Taliban controlled regions for example) get the distribution sorted.

                                                                                                                                            Further, Polio was unprecedented in the sense that W.H.O. (and others) managed to set up the VERY complicated infrastructure of mobile testing labs, vaccine distributions, but most importantly, door to door canvassing through the enormous amounts of hard work of poorly-paid LOCAL volunteers (MANY women) who go door to door, month after month, conducting surveys and understanding the plight of the local populace. They are the ones who could tell us, down to the household, who had been vaccinated and who hadn't. On a global scale. Imagine the complexity.

                                                                                                                                            And because this infrastructure was in place, OTHER departments could use it too, for instance to study Malaria rates etc. All on Polio money. But now with funding soon to be sunsetted, the issue is how we can maintain the good of the program: the door to door stuff, the mobile labs etc., with no Polio funding?

                                                                                                                                            Other things are complicated too, such as health ministries not being fond of their for-years-guaranteed Polio funding going away. This is perhaps ok in non-corrupt countries, but in less fortunate countries, their representatives must argue for greater share of the funding for THEIR government, knowing full well that that money could maybe be better used elsewhere.

                                                                                                                                            On the other side of the equation, you have to deal with the funding agencies: the Gates etc., who would love nothing more than to be able to see the fruits of their labour paid off as soon as possible, since they've been waiting for a decade. Patience is an ever-scarcer commodity, and it's hard say that I don't sympathise with them, given how many resources they've invested into the project.

                                                                                                                                            And WHO is liable for everything it states, so all outreach must be carefully vetted. So you need a big PR team/lawyers etc. There are just endless complications. W.H.O. has to manage ALL of this, and that is exactly why they require a big staff.

                                                                                                                                            This stuff is not limited to just the UN btw. All big companies face such challenges. By contrast, PG's article seems more to be desigend to caress his ego rather than express something truly useful for the world to consume and learn for.

                                                                                                                                            • vinceguidry 8 days ago

                                                                                                                                              Perfect! What makes Nigeria so complicated? Is it corruption? Are they not letting health workers operate?

                                                                                                                                              In the business space, I think there's a sense that everything people are doing is going to line some asshole's pockets and you're going to get none of those benefits. HNers in particular just often seem like they can't see the meaning in plugging away at the company they're working for, and the Silicon Valley dream is predicated on making a startup and compressing your work life down to a few short years.

                                                                                                                                              The dream is inspirational to some because there's rarely any glory in being a cog in a machine. Even guys that work at Google get burned out after awhile. It's just hard in many cases to stay motivated. PG's essay wants to say that it's just working in a big organization is unnatural. I think that's way way off the mark, we would never have society and people wouldn't collect into cities if that were the case, and his understanding of hunter-gatherers seems trite, even for 2008.

                                                                                                                                              But Silicon Valley is a thing and people do flock there from all over the country to chase a certain kind of ideal. I think it's the same kind of thing that encourages young community workers to keep gathering data in their communities year after year. The opportunity to chase a real goal and be a part of something bigger.

                                                                                                                                              Silly Valley wants to unify intelligence, glory, and meaning together. All things that run out of the tap at CERN. In order for that to happen though, there needs to be a healthy amount of creative destruction. Not all companies know how to manage teams. Encouraging those who are feeling burned out and squeezed to find greener pastures can only make it better.

                                                                                                                                              But yeah, I don't think any of the generalizations he makes are at all accurate enough to be stated. Some programmers work better in small groups. But lots of them need lots of structure.

                                                                                                                                              • clebio 8 days ago

                                                                                                                                                Your whole thread is gold. I have come back to the posted article twice so far to read your comments specifically. Thank you, and I'd just generally love to read more about these thoughts. Whether publicly-funded or military (a different thread) or whatever, it's still possible to learn from healthy, effective orgs wherever they are.

                                                                                                                                                • exergy 8 days ago

                                                                                                                                                  What a nice thing to say! And a refreshing change from my own acerbic tone, so thanks for that. If you're interested in this sort of stuff, Maciek's blog (Idlewords) is fantastic. He is humorous but gives every topic he chooses a lot of respect. Start with his article on the space shuttle. Also, his talks are fantastic too!

                                                                                                                                                  • clebio 8 days ago

                                                                                                                                                    I love his writing! Though I have to carve out time for the long-form posts. :)

                                                                                                                                          • jatins 9 days ago

                                                                                                                                            Assuming what that article says is correct, that it isn't natural - what's the solution to this? Surely, everyone can't be a startup founder.

                                                                                                                                            Just curious how the world should work for that article to not exist.

                                                                                                                                            • jp_sc 7 days ago

                                                                                                                                              Maybe cooperatives? The book "Developer Hegemony" talk about that.

                                                                                                                                            • frogpelt 8 days ago

                                                                                                                                              Two thoughts: pg says we are designed but then in the notes he says "by evolution." Since evolution is changing to fit and survive your environment, perhaps humans working in groups is better for their survival.

                                                                                                                                              Also, specialization of labor has created this concept. Humans used to provide their own food, shelter and transportation that's all they needed to do. But when one person specializes in transportation, one in farming or hunting, and one in building shelters things start to change.

                                                                                                                                              And we end up with companies that only build pipe fittings.

                                                                                                                                              • frederikvs 9 days ago

                                                                                                                                                There are some interesting books regarding organisational structure, that also reflect some of what's in the blog post.

                                                                                                                                                Reinventing Organisations by Frederic Laloux is one that especially struck my interest.

                                                                                                                                                • setgree 6 days ago

                                                                                                                                                  > I've noticed a definite difference between programmers working on their own startups and those working for large organizations. I wouldn't say founders seem happier, necessarily; starting a startup can be very stressful. Maybe the best way to put it is to say that they're happier in the sense that your body is happier during a long run than sitting on a sofa eating doughnuts.

                                                                                                                                                  I this this is a good analogy but I don't draw the same conclusion Paul does. I trained for a marathon last summer, and it sucked. Long distance running and racing has been associated with diminished lifespans [0], organ damage [1], weakened immune system [2], and lowered sex drive [3]. This research isn't conclusive by any means, but it's a lot easier to explain if you believe in an upside-down U-shaped relationship between exercise and well-being than a monotonic relationship. (I personally found that my sweet spot was under 100 km/week, any more than that and I got sick and tired and felt beat-down.)

                                                                                                                                                  Same with being a CEO. It's great to be your own boss. It's generally hard on your body, soul, and relationships to work 100 hours a week. If your ambition is to have a 5k/month side project and live on that, that's probably good for your health. If it's to make and sell a billion dollar company, that's probably not.

                                                                                                                                                  That's not to say that _working_ at a startup isn't great. I just wouldn't want to start one. And unless you do, you're probably going to have a boss.

                                                                                                                                                  [0] https://www.mayoclinicproceedings.org/article/%20S0025-6196(...

                                                                                                                                                  [1] https://www.ajkd.org/article/S0272-6386(17)30536-X/fulltext

                                                                                                                                                  [2] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17465622

                                                                                                                                                  [3] https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-libido-men-workout...

                                                                                                                                                  • bryanrasmussen 9 days ago

                                                                                                                                                    In the really big companies I worked at we were in small teams of about 10, and communication outside that team was infrequent. It's the medium sized companies that were the drainers.

                                                                                                                                                    • queryly 8 days ago

                                                                                                                                                      I am not sure if it is because I am getting old, but have found Paul's old writing more resonating than ever.

                                                                                                                                                      • matfil 8 days ago

                                                                                                                                                        Likewise. His more programming-centric writing, in particular, is a breath of fresh air relative to the current "teams, tests, and tickets" dogma. Personal favourite: http://paulgraham.com/head.html

                                                                                                                                                      • noir_lord 8 days ago

                                                                                                                                                        The legacy code but resonates, I'm often stuck doing things in an ugly way or constrained because I have to work around the continual tire fire I inherited.

                                                                                                                                                        On the flip side I'm one of those weirdos who likes working on legacy code as long as I have the freedom to improve it.

                                                                                                                                                        • paulie_a 9 days ago

                                                                                                                                                          There is a big difference between management and leadership. Regardless of the size of the team there will be managers. There will be a structure. whether it is a team of two or megacorp, what consistently lacks is genuine leadership.

                                                                                                                                                          • agumonkey 8 days ago

                                                                                                                                                            Brings me memories about stories at PARC, there were often manager-free path between groups. This led to unleashed creativity: want something ? ask the dude that know about something, done.

                                                                                                                                                            • fallingfrog 8 days ago

                                                                                                                                                              You weren’t, but here’s the reason you do:

                                                                                                                                                              In an organization where everyone is equal, adding a new person to the org doesn’t benefit the people who are already in it. Let’s say you have a coop bagel shop- is there any particular reason to want to cut your own paychecks until you have saved up enough to open another one? Or let’s say you live in an egalitarian, peaceful country. Is there any reason to want to invade your neighbors and annex territory? No.

                                                                                                                                                              But, if you put one person in charge, then suddenly you have a person in a position of authority with a vested interest in expanding the franchise, since he gets to skim off the labor of everyone underneath him. In a stroke, you’ve invented empire, war, and capitalism. Come back in a hundred years and the organizations that expanded the most are also the most heirarchical.

                                                                                                                                                              I don’t think this is a good thing, by the way, just a historical factor to be aware of.

                                                                                                                                                              • neil_s 8 days ago

                                                                                                                                                                Huh? If the additional person can bring more value to the cooperative than they consume (which you would generally hope to be true for most hires), then it will be to your benefit. Yes, more slices need to be cut, but the cake is bigger. For example, a marketing expert that can increase customers for the single bagel shop by 10%, but their salary only costs 1%.

                                                                                                                                                                • fallingfrog 8 days ago

                                                                                                                                                                  Sure- that’s true. But heirarchical organizations seek to expand even when the benefit to each existing member is zero- or indeed, negative.

                                                                                                                                                                • donaldknuth123 8 days ago

                                                                                                                                                                  There's a fairly obvious reason to expand your corporation or territory. To increase the resources available to your people. Through invasion and annexation you can increase the average amount of resources available to your people if you invade a place with a very high concentration of them. you don't need a hierarchy to justify this. Your argument doesn't make much sense.

                                                                                                                                                                  • cubano 8 days ago

                                                                                                                                                                    So how do you explain the exact opposite actually working in the wild?

                                                                                                                                                                    Over the past couple hundred years, almost all full communist/socialist governments have failed, while market-based capitalistic ones have pulled billions out of abject poverty.

                                                                                                                                                                  • iblaine 8 days ago

                                                                                                                                                                    TL;DR; Successful guy visits Africa, sees animals in the wild instead of Zoo's, creates clickbait article to imply capitalism is a zoo and people do not belong in zoo's. The premise of this argument is that people do not belong in large groups. Ironically that is what we all try to do. Over time, people organize so they can accomplish greater things as a whole rather than individuals. The end of the article goes on to say, "Founders arriving at Y Combinator often have the downtrodden air of refugees. Three months later they're transformed: they have so much more confidence that they seem as if they've grown several inches taller." I can't decide if this article attempting to be advice or a sales pitch for Y Combinator.

                                                                                                                                                                    • cow9 9 days ago

                                                                                                                                                                      "For individuals the upshot is the same: aim small. It will always suck to work for large organizations, and the larger the organization, the more it will suck."

                                                                                                                                                                      do you agree?

                                                                                                                                                                      • FrankyHollywood 9 days ago

                                                                                                                                                                        Definitly not! Few years ago I worked as developer at a startup. 4 devs, 2 sales, 1 marketing and 1 CEO.

                                                                                                                                                                        It was a mess, sales made horrible promisses to customers, and letting us build demo after demo. The CEO was going round every day pushing people to work harder. And everytime the guy read some tech news we had to drop everything and switch technology to be 'more innovative'.

                                                                                                                                                                        Right now I'm working in a large company (> 1000 employees)

                                                                                                                                                                        I have a steady budget for my team. There are targets offcourse, but overall a lot of freedom to do with my team we think is best. Management doesn't get involved in any tech descisions. Wouldn't wanne go back to my startup years...

                                                                                                                                                                        • UncleMeat 8 days ago

                                                                                                                                                                          I work at a large organization. My worldwide impact here is literally six orders of magnitude larger than what it was when I was working in a small team in grad school. Large institutions are powerful. This blog post is crazy.

                                                                                                                                                                          • MrTonyD 9 days ago

                                                                                                                                                                            I think that is usually true that big companies have little autonomy. And I've usually noticed that the people who say they have autonomy are those who control other people - and disregard the fact that they reduce the autonomy of others.

                                                                                                                                                                            • fernandotakai 8 days ago

                                                                                                                                                                              honestly? i do. i've worked for a big bank as well as a small (10~15 people) startups and i hugely prefer a startup; mostly (if not all) because of stuff pg cites on this article.

                                                                                                                                                                              i feel more free to be creative, to implement interesting stuff, to experiment. not having that management layer on top of you is kind of liberating.

                                                                                                                                                                              ofc this is not for everyone (just like remote work is not for everyone -- i love it, but i don't recommend that every single developer out there stays at home from monday on), but i do think (from my own experience) that you will become a better professional working for startups.

                                                                                                                                                                            • gamma-male 9 days ago

                                                                                                                                                                              Perfect blogpost as I'm joining a large corp soon...

                                                                                                                                                                              • initself 9 days ago

                                                                                                                                                                                "In an artificial world, only extremists live naturally."

                                                                                                                                                                                • uncle_d 9 days ago

                                                                                                                                                                                  Ha. Perfect blogpost as I’m leaving a large corp soon...

                                                                                                                                                                                • yowlingcat 8 days ago

                                                                                                                                                                                  I'm going to agree with other folks saying PG really took the L on this piece. That "Don't talk to corp dev" piece is a far more quality piece than this one, which is really a stretch. As it turns out, if you're at the right company, even if you prefer small firms, you'll probably find a lot to learn and a good reason to stay at a larger company. And if you're at a small firm, you can really be gambling on your entire career. PG, of course, never mentions this in his piece, or the consideration that so many startups fail. How many bush tailed young engineers have gone to work at a startup somewhere early in their career and had it go pear shaped? Was this kind of inspiration porn to blame?

                                                                                                                                                                                  Of course, it's 10 years on from this piece, and we're seeing lots of correction to this. The youth aren't quite so naive these days. They don't buy this kind of drivel. They want a real job with real benefits, room to grow, mentorship, a healthy org, userbase growth, an interesting roadmap -- they want a career. They're not going to settle for a huckster selling them a get rich quick scheme. PG gets dangerously close to that in several articles.

                                                                                                                                                                                  EDIT: I'm realizing this sounds a little bit more bitter and polemical than I'd like. Let me submit for reference that this view is very, very much colored by my own experiences -- right out of college, I had several early stage startups I worked at and/or co-founded go sideways in manners that I had zero preparation for or help extricating myself from. I found myself wishing at that stage that I had worked at either more established companies, whether they be post series A startups or BigCos. I went on to do just that, but had already burned through 3 years of a spotty resumé, low salary, emotional burnout and having to develop an unnecessarily thick hide to weather all that than I wished. I'm seeing colleagues of mine who took this route out of college, and they seem so much further ahead and well-balanced than I was at their age. It makes me think that in hindsight, it all seems so unnecessary -- had I worked at more stable companies in that period, wouldn't I be three years ahead? Would I have been a more polished and developed professional just as they are now? It's easy to discount the necessity of good mentorship early in your career, but it's so crucial. That mentorship is what gives you the tools to learn how to learn and how to peacefully co-exist with others -- if you don't get that the right way, there's a lot of painful and wasteful unlearning and relearning that must be done. I certainly found myself doing more of that than I would have liked.

                                                                                                                                                                                  For all intents and purposes, there's no guarantee (just a high probability financially) that I would've been further ahead if I started my career off at a big co. But life doesn't work like that. I would have certainly been more risk-averse, and a lot less capable of, erm, smashing through my problems (when I need to) as I am today. I guess that even so, I would still trade some of that off for a more stable early career that let me get to a place of security and learning right out of college.

                                                                                                                                                                                  • tlb 8 days ago

                                                                                                                                                                                    The idea that working for a small company that fails is damaging to one’s career is a durable bit of propaganda. It probably originated as a way for big companies to discourage their people from shopping around. You can picture IBM execs, after the company singalong, telling ghost stories about the Man Who Joined a Startup, with themes from Icarus or fairy tales where someone strays from the village and is eaten by wolves.

                                                                                                                                                                                    Being part of a small company that fails sucks while it’s going down, but quickly turns into a new adventure for people that are open to it.

                                                                                                                                                                                    • chrisbennet 8 days ago

                                                                                                                                                                                      In his defense, maybe at the time he wrote this it was closer to true and he believed it.

                                                                                                                                                                                    • mempko 8 days ago

                                                                                                                                                                                      > to have each group actually be independent, and to work together the way components of a market economy do.

                                                                                                                                                                                      If you look at truly revolutionary making environments like Xerox Parc, they are like this, no bosses and small groups.

                                                                                                                                                                                      However, what you didn't see in Xerox Parc is a market economy. Why? Because competition destroys invention.

                                                                                                                                                                                      Humans are not meant to compete with each other. Markets are another artificial environment, but of course, Paul doesn't see that because he is the fish in the fishbowl.

                                                                                                                                                                                      • qrbLPHiKpiux 8 days ago

                                                                                                                                                                                        This post parallels Ted Kaczynski's "Industrial society and its future"

                                                                                                                                                                                        • 33a 8 days ago
                                                                                                                                                                                          • jacquesm 8 days ago

                                                                                                                                                                                            There is a huge contradiction in this essay. If everybody were to follow the mantra and 'fire their boss' then who will those scrappy starter-uppers hire?

                                                                                                                                                                                            Some people will have a boss, some people won't and that's all dependent on personal risk evaluation. The 'gig' economy is where really nobody has a boss, the libertarian wet dream where everybody sells their body as a service to be discarded on a moments notice. Having a boss translates into access to social security, welfare, healthcare and other safety nets in many places in the world, and entrepreneurs usually pay in to such schemes but will not be in a position to apply for help if it should come to that.

                                                                                                                                                                                            • jannes 8 days ago

                                                                                                                                                                                              I think the essay doesn't make the case for everyone to 'fire their boss' rather than to limit organisation size to about 8 people and to eliminate hierarchies.

                                                                                                                                                                                              • jacquesm 8 days ago

                                                                                                                                                                                                How is that working out for Stripe, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Dropbox, Uber and Apple?

                                                                                                                                                                                            • draw_down 8 days ago

                                                                                                                                                                                              Everyone who isn't independently wealthy has a boss.

                                                                                                                                                                                              • m0skit0 9 days ago

                                                                                                                                                                                                Except that white flour or sugar are not bad for you physically.

                                                                                                                                                                                                https://sciencebasedmedicine.org/gary-taubes-and-the-case-ag...