I’m on a Harvard mailing list for some folks interested in startups and innovation. A recent thread of discussion was around hiring, and in a posting to the group I talked about making sure that you did your hiring so that you avoided the bozo effect. I was asked by a number of people what I meant by that, which led to a long post that generated some interest. So I thought it might be of interest to a wider audience, as well. So I’m posting it here…
On hiring, bozos, and some (admittedly biased) history
Some time ago on this list I sent out a message concerning hiring, and mentioned that you need to avoid bozos if you want your company to survive. I said in that post
It is a truism that good people want to work with other good people; a corollary to this is that bozos attract other bozos. Once the bozo count reaches a certain percentage, the company is doomed (I saw this happen from the outside to Digital Equipment Co. and from the inside to Sun; I’mworried that Google may have hit the bozo event horizon).
A number of you asked, either privately or publicly, if I would expand on this, and perhaps talk about what happened at Sun and DEC, and what I’m seeing happening at Google (and what I mean by a bozo). These are difficult topics, some intellectually so and others emotionally so. But I’ve been thinking about this for a bit, and I’ll give it a try.
Let’s start with the notion of a bozo. All of the great companies I have worked for (Apollo and Sun in various incarnations) or heard about (DEC, PARC, Bell Labs and the like) started around a core of incredible people. These were people who are or were legends in the field. They were the ones who where 10 or 100 times as productive as the average engineer. Some, like Bill Joy, are idea gerbils who can spout out hundreds of original ideas a week. Only some of them are actually workable, but if there is someone around to catch the good ones and edit the losers, these people change the world. Others, like James Gosling, quietly change the world by building something (the core Java language and libraries) that make so much sense and are so elegant that you just smile when you use them.
Good tech companies find a way to reward these people without making them go into management or otherwise change what they are doing. DEC had the title of consulting engineer and senior consulting engineer; at Sun there were the distinguished engineers and fellows. These were levels above the rank and file engineers; no one could expect to be promoted to that level, but you always hoped to become one of the elect. I remember being told that the requirement for becoming a Sun Fellow was that you had invented one or more major branches of computer science; the original fellows (Bob Sproull, Ivan Sutherland, and Peter Deutsch) all qualified on that metric.
One aspect of these positions is that they generally required peer review. You couldn’t become a Sun DE or a DEC consulting engineer just because the managers said you should. You became one because the other DEs or CEs had looked at your technical chops, and said that you were one of the elect. It was often compared to getting tenure, except that it was often more difficult; professors with tenure who shifted to these companies often weren’t passed into this level. And these people were the keepers of the corporate technical flame, making sure that the company stayed on the right (technical) footing.
The core of this decision procedure was the ability of the top-level technical talent being able to make technical judgements about other technical contributors. But at some point in the history of the companies, there arose worries that the selection criteria wasn’t, in some sense, fair. People who, from the manager’s point of view, did great work weren’t being selected by the technical leaders to join the top group. People who did other kinds of important work were seen as being de-valued because they weren’t being allowed into the upper ranks. And at some point, in the name of “fairness” or “diversity of skills” or the like, contributors who would not have otherwise been let in are added to the group.
And these are the bozos. Not necessarily bad people, or even unintelligent, but those who have been promoted to a level where they are given technical weight that they don’t deserve. The “A” team now has some “B” members, but those outside of the team (and maybe some inside of the team) can’t tell the difference. The upper levels of the technical parts of the company now have some people who are driven more by politics, or quick business wins, or self-promotion (all of which may have been the skills that got them support from the non-technical to be promoted to the technical elite). Without a clear technical voice, management does the best it can. But the ship is somewhat rudderless.
Worse still, the bozos will push to promote others like themselves. Which dilutes the technical thinking even more. At some point, what used to be technical discussions devolve into discussions about politics, or business models, or market share. All of which may be important, but they aren’t the technical discussions that had made the company a leader. This is when you have reached the bozo event horizon. I’ve never seen a company recover.
All of this is about the technical bozos, because that is what I’ve experienced. But it wouldn’t surprise me to find that the same sort of phenomenon goes on in marketing, or management, or any other field. The indicator is when process and fairness becomes more important than judgement, and when it isn’t ok to say that some people have reached their limit. Or maybe this is something that happens more in the technical parts of an organization than in the others. I wouldn’t know.
I don’t know that Google has hit the bozo event horizon, but I’m worried that they might have. Part of the worry is just because of their size; it is really hard to grow the way Google has without letting some lightweights rise to the top. The other is their hiring process (full disclosure; I’ve looked at Google a couple of times and it never worked) which has gotten pretty process-bound and odd. The last time I went through it, the site manager admitted that I was plenty smart, but they didn’t know what they would do with me. Given what they were obviously looking for, I wasn’t sure what I would do with them, either. But the whole process seems to indicate that they are looking for people to fit a pre-defined mold, which the top performers generally don’t do all that well. In fact, the Google process reminded me of the time, more than 20 years ago, when I interviewed at Microsoft. And we saw how well that worked…