The Most Important Thing

By Ivan Gevirtz

created: Tuesday, October 11, 2005
updated: Friday, April 07, 2006

"Get Big Fast!" was the mantra when I was at  And, indeed we succeeded in growing from about 1,000 people to over 7,000 people in about a year.  The challenge was in maintaining cohesion with this growth.  Everyone has heard of the Mythical Man Month (and if you haven't, read it, I have a copy on my desk you can borrow -- just let me know).  Originally written over 30 years ago, this book explains how managing growth can be the critical problem for an organization.  In his eponymous theory, Brooks asserts that adding manpower to a late project makes it later.  Part of the reason why is that communication paths don't scale lineally.  Indeed, they can exponentially, or worse!

Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon, was well aware of the problem.  He knew that the success of Amazon would be based on how well he managed growth during this "land grab" phase.  Like many businesses that benefit from a network effect, Amazon had to be the online destination to "find, discover, and buy" anything and everything you wanted.  Otherwise Amazon couldn't leverage the advantages of a single, consolidated marketplace.  Bezos knew that in order to successfully navigate this growth, he had to recruit and keep the best employees.  He had to have the organization make great hiring decisions and create a sustainable corporate culture.  One practice he instituted was in using "Bar Raisers".  The bar raisers had generally been at Amazon long enough to know what the corporate values and culture was like, and generally were the best employees in terms of productivity, inventiveness, and technical acumen.  And they were authorized to spend up to 25% of their time on recruiting.  That's right, Amazon's best employees were told to spend a quarter of their time working on making sure Amazon found and hired the best people on the planet.  Bezos felt that making good hiring decisions was the most important thing the company needed to do successfully.  Every employee hired was required to interview with a bar raiser from another team.  And hiring decisions had to be unanimous.

I once worked for a company with a "Toxic CEO".  This company did almost everything right -- had sexy technology, a truly world class development team, and an enormous market that it succeeded in penetrating.  But, the CEO viewed employees as interchangeable resources.  We managed to hire the best, work them almost to death, and then they'd either quit or be fired.  In 3 years, the company grew to 70 people, but their turnover rate was over 50%.

Other companies I have worked at are somewhere in between.  Almost all of the relatively successful ones have CEO's that care about their employees.  They want their employees to work hard when at work, but to have a life outside of work that enables them to feel fulfilled.  These companies often find that their employees are generally charged, and motivated to work hard while at the office.  They are not burned out and just trying to stay afloat.  They have the mental head space to be creative and often inventive.

Like so many things, a collection is made up of individual parts.  But, like another cliche, a chain is only as strong as its weakest link.  Indeed, in a company, the value of each individual varies widely, and extends way beyond their individual productivity.  Everyone wants employees to be productive, so it is hard to imagine that a productive employee could be a great liability to a small company.  Yet, that seems to be the case for software startups.  Over the years, I've seen that a certain class of "productive" employees are a net loss to the company.  I've named my observation "A, B, and C players".  Microsoft has documented this phenomenon, as have others.  Fred Brooks even documented the difference between the great hackers and the average, citing the great hackers as more that 10x more productive than the good ones.  Ten times!

But I've seen another problem, and it is the problem of the middle.  Corporate politics, infighting, turf wars, all these things can render a startup still born.  Amazon used to call this "Optimizing for Appearances" rather than for productivity.  All big companies have this problem, and it is easy to lay the blame on the lack of upward mobility.  If the only way for you to advance is to take someone else's job, then you're going to hope for that other person's failure.  Now, even in a big company, this shouldn't be the case.  Create new opportunities, and make them your own is a much healthier attitude.  Easier said than done.

But where do office politics begin?  They begin with the first bad hire.  Whenever I've looked back at a company which suddenly had politics, I could always trace it back to one person.  And usually that person was hired a while ago.  And usually that person was able to get things done.  Indeed, the first bad hire may not be the first hiring mistake.  The first hiring mistake happens when you hire someone for the wrong job, or just hire someone incompetent.  Let's call these people "C" players.  They're your average Joe, and have no place in a successful startup.  But, C players aren't really a problem.  Usually they are pretty obvious, and everyone is happier when they find a better role (in another company!).  The A players are equally easy to spot.  They are the ones who get things done, and who lift the company morale.  They are the people you think of when you think of the company's successes.  They are sometimes quiet, but their presence is felt.  A players often make lots of mistakes, but they make them fast, and early in the process.  And they learn from their mistakes and don't make them again.

B players, on the other hand, are the bad hires.  They are good enough that they often get things passably done.  They may be sloppy or incomplete, but they always seem to have an external excuse.  They are usually likeable enough (you hired them!) but there's something about them.  They are the people who won't admit when they don't know something, and won't ask questions for fear of appearing dumb.  And they are the people who start politics in the office.  Because they can't keep up, because they're not an A player and know it, because they think economics is a "zero sum game", they start breeding discontent and negativity.  They take someone else's misstep and amplify it negatively.  They don't teach others what they know, rather they guard their "turf" believing it means job security.  Because they do get things done, B players are often hard to spot.  But, when you look at it, you will often see that B players take up a lot of people's time.  They will take a long time to get things done, and often require a lot of hand holding.  Or, once in a while they will make a big, "noble", and highly visible effort to get something done.  Something that an A player does routinely and doesn't think to tell anyone about because it is so mundane.

B players are a pernicious cancer and can quickly kill a healthy organization.

It is much better to make the mistake and not hire someone great than to hire a B player.  If you ever suspect a candidate may be a B player, quickly flush them.  Sometimes, you'll meet a candidate, and your gut will tell you that they'll either be great or just plain wrong.  This candidate is either going to be an A or a C.  These people are ok to hire, as long as you feel comfortable taking corrective action if they turn out to be a C player.  And don't think that just because you're very selective that you're getting the best people.

Good Candidates are:

And remember the most important asset of a startup is its employees.  Good recruiting is a company's number one priority!