What's a Technology Company?
I'm a programmer. Obviously, this means that I have to earn money and realize my talents working for some company that employs programmers (or on my own). It's worth noting that there are several kinds of such companies.
One is traditional enterprises, like banks or government agencies, that need programmers to automate their processes and improve output. Every company needs an accountant, and, likewise, nowadays every needs a programmer.
There are also companies that provide software development and related services - the so-called consulting or outsourcing firms. They employ programmers to automate the work and improve the output of, mainly, the first breed of companies.
Then, there are also technology product companies, like Instagram or Apple, that employ engineers to build their products, services or media, which are then consumed by ordinary people.
Finally, there are truly technology companies that produce new technology that is used by all the previous three groups, as well as by the technology companies themselves. From the business standpoint, this technology may be supplied either in the form of on-the-spot consulting work, licensing or even separate products.
Every group has some percentage of technology work in its operation. This work, often called R&D, comprises of implementation of existing technology (D in R&D) and creation of the new one (R). The share of the two differs substantially between the groups. The companies from the first one may be 1 to 10% dependent on R&D work and have almost 0% of R in it, the second group is 90% R&D work, still, with mere percents of R in it, the third group is just 30-50% R&D, and the share of R in it may rise to 10-20% but rarely more, and the last group should have 90% R&D with >50% R in it.
A technology company should be a thought leader in its sphere. This means not chasing fashions in our pop-culture-like industry but setting an example justified by technological excellence instead of marketing. This means building something that will last and have an impact for a substantially longer period of time than the ever-accelerating hype cycle. This means having an ultimate goal of solving hard technical problems and not chasing profits or market share. While product companies try to change the world by producing their innovative products that merely use technology, a technology company does that by producing technology that enables more innovative products. A closed vs an open approach.
There's this popular meme of 10x programmers that constantly spurs discussion and flamewars among our peers. Is it just fad, who are those 10xers, do they really exist?
Let's first consider this question from the perspective of other crafts and professions. Are there 10x painters? Well, if we compare painter productivity by the number of pieces drawn it would be hard to tell. But if you think about price, clearly, there are even 1000x ones: an ordinary painter's work may cost $1000, and a famous masterpiece will be in the millions. If we consider the number of people reached the same rule applies: maybe, thousands will see quality works of a common professional painter, and millions or even billions - the works of a master. But you may say that painting, unlike programming, is an art. What about carpentry? Well, I'd compare with professions that require mostly intellectual work. Are there 100x doctors? Surely, there are those who saved 100x more people by inventing a new operation method or treatment. Lawyers? A person who writes a law impacts orders of magnitude more than an ordinary counselor at some random firm. This list may be continued on and on.
I've compiled a book called "Interviews with 100x programmers". To some extent, the name was an exaggeration. But, as they say, every joke has some truth in it. In fact, I fully subscribe to the 10x programmer concept. Moreover, I consider that there are not only 10x ones but also 100x, 1000x... Definitely, there are hardly any 10x coders, i.e. people who produce 10x the amount of code a good professional programmer will create in the same timeframe. But there's much more to programming than merely writing program code.
To be an order of magnitude more productive means to solve problems an order of magnitude more complex than the ones considered accessible at a given point in time. Obviously, such problems exist, and there will, probably, always be an unlimited supply of them. Also, it should be clear from the short history of computing that there are some people capable of bringing a new perspective, coming up with approaches that allow solving such problems either in a much better way or just solve them at all. As Alan Kay, who's for sure one of such 100x programmers, has famously said: "A change in perspective is worth 80 IQ points."
Still, there's more to it than just solving harder problems. Another popular explanation given to the 10x thing is that such a programmer is the one who makes 10 other programmers 2x more productive. This, from my point of view, implies the one who is showing a better approach, in other words, a thought leader, and the one who implements this vision in some technology that other programmers use. In fact, we're productive in our work at our current level mostly thanks to such prolific programmers: every day I use Unix, Emacs, Lisp, git and other tools that were initially conceived and built by a handful of the 10x programmers. Their vision and impulse made thousands and even millions more productive.
Those 10x programmers are the ones I'd like to be around at work. And so, my ideal company is the one that attracts such persons. And although a significant percent of such people are loners, most of them are also highly motivated by the presence of similar colleagues.
So which one of the 4 company types mentioned above will such people choose?
The first one is mostly out of consideration because in it the programmers are not the primary value creators - on the contrary, often they are considered a cost center. I.e. they are just another service function similar to an accountant or a janitor. Surely, there are exceptions to this rule when the company leaders realize the potential that technology change bears to their company, which, basically, means that the firm is transitioning to type 3. Even in such case, it's still a much less productive environment than a type 3 firm built with the right principles in mind from the start.
What about outsourcing companies? Their advantage is that programmers are their primary asset, which means that the company will be built around them, have a substantial number of them and will do a lot to attract and hold prominent people. The nature of work, unfortunately, is usually a severely limiting factor here. First of all, in most of the cases, the customer doesn't really care about the technological excellence or innovative nature of the result. The projects are in most of the cases counter-innovative, i.e. the more mundane, reproducible, and ordinary the technological solution that achieves the desired result is the better. And it's quite reasonable from the business standpoint: innovation is risky. This means that, ultimately, such companies reward uniformity and interchangeability of their stuff and their output, especially, since it's much easier to manage and scale. Have I mentioned that managing programmers is very hard (the common metaphor used is "herding cats")?
Now, let's look at product companies. Are they a heaven for 10x programmers? Well, a lot of such people flock there. One reason is that such companies understand the need for talented programmers because unlike the previous 2 types they may and should face unique technological challenges, and, moreover, their leadership is able to recognize that (type 1 companies also face those challenges, but usually they just don't view them from the technology standpoint). Yet, a product company is only X% new technology and another (100-X)% other things. What is the value of X? Maybe, it's 20-30% at Google or Facebook, and even less at smaller companies with fewer resources. Why? Because, as we discussed above, the ultimate goal of most of such companies is making money by serving masses of customers. This requires huge marketing, sales, operations, and support "vehicles" that employ professionals to operate and programmers to build, maintain and develop. But have quite little interesting technical challenges. Once again, this is the right thing from the business standpoint, especially if you have to earn more and more money each year and grow your market share. But focus on earnings and market share means that technological excellence becomes secondary. Surely, the best of the leaders and managers realize its importance, but they have to make many trade-offs all the time.
That's why I have singled out "pure" technology companies. Such organizations are naturally inclined to make tech excellency their focus. There are, surely, counterexamples that are infected with the Silicon Valley "growth virus" and try to win the market as fast as possible with marketing, but it doesn't mean that it always has to work that way. In my opinion, purely technological companies are the best place for 10x programmers because they will not merely utilize their work to some other end goal but have vested interest in amplifying its influence. They are not inclined to conceal the know-hows and innovations as trade secrets, but will benefit from sharing and promoting them. They may also provide maximum freedom of choice: of approaches, tools, supporting technologies, because their primary concern is not effective scaling of the same ultimately repetitive work to many similar programmers but creating breakthroughs. Their dependence on such ultra-productive programmers is existential.
I don't consider myself to be a 10x programmer, but, surely, I'd like to reach such level someday and I also aspire to work alongside them.
A Company I'd Build
All in all, being part of a technology company seems like the best choice for me both in terms of potential impact and possibilities to have 10x programmer colleagues. Eventually, either you have to join one or create one yourself. For the last 5 years, I've been working in the so-called AI, and my experience both from product company side and individual consultant work shows that demand for research-related technology expertise here is growing much faster than the supply. I see it as a chance for new technology companies to emerge and gather those few capable people in this field to amplify their impact. So I'm seriously considering starting a technology company, and I'm looking for like-minded people who share my values and vision to join our forces.
If I were to start such company, I'd build its foundation on a few things that really matter to me personally. Some principles or, as they used to call them, values. Unfortunately, the notion of "values" has somewhat lost its original meaning in the corporate world. When you see such qualities as effectiveness or adaptability cast as values that's a sign of such misconception. Values are something that you don't compromise upon at all. Surely, it's pointless to compromise any parts of your professionalism (such as effectiveness), so professionalism is a default value not even worth discussing. Real "values", however, are those aspects of your work culture that run a real risk of conflicting with the things that are considered universally important. In business, those are profits, market share, favorable competitive position. So, being true to your values means not forfeiting them even if you're going to lose in those basic areas.Here is a list of the values that I subscribe to:
- Technological excellence should be a basic trait of any technology company. For me, an example of applying such value would be using Lisp as a starting point for most of the solutions despite the fact that the language is quite unpopular and underappreciated - my personal experience shows that it works very well, especially in the fields that are heavily knowledge-based. Another example is that in a technology company literally everyone should be technology-savvy: even the office manager should be programming at times.
- Personalism is the main quality that a company has to support in its dealings with all the people it's interacting with: employees, customers, contractors and providers. This means, for example, striving to provide flexible and productive working conditions to each employee instead of trying to fit everyone in the same conditions (because management is hard). Overall, lack of management competency should never become a limiting factor. One manifestation of this is that a modern technology company should be built as a distributed organization from day 1.
- Ahimsa is an ancient word meaning not harming anyone. It is a little bit more than our modern-day ethics, but it's worth it. Why create something if you know that it will cause misery and suffering to others? In effect, this means, for example, refusal to provide services to companies that are clearly unethical.
- Radical openness. As they say, "information wants to be free." :) Maximal sharing and minimal secrecy makes so many things much simpler. And in our lowest-common-denominator technology world, ultimately, the risk of competitors copying and abusing your work is much less than that of brilliant people not joining your cause because they just haven't heard of it.
So... If you're interested in solving complex AI challenges out of whatever part of the world you're living in, working with 10x programmers, using Lisp and other advanced technologies in the process - drop me a line, I'd be glad to chat.