My friend Ivan wrote a post today on how companies mismanage 10x employees, and more broadly on how people should be judged on the output of their work not the hours they put in.My thinking on judging employees solely on output moved 180 degrees after actually trying to act on it.
This is one of those ideas that sounds great in the individual case, but often causes a very negative chain of events. Let me at through what I’ve seen happen, and then the one exception to the rule.
My first experience with 10x employees was a CTO at a high growth startup in the late 90s called internetsoccer.com. The CTO could have a huge impact even in short spurts, the kind of person that could spend an hour and make breakthroughs that would last weeks.
He also had some personal issues he was working through, so he wasn’t around the office all that much. His conversations with his team, and with the rest of us as executives, was that he was having equal or more positive impact in his 20 hours a week than other people were in their 60 hours. And at first we all agreed, it felt like the meritocratic thing to do.
The thing we forgot was that the what you are building in a startup is culture, not code.
The first problem is that 10x more people think that they are 10xers than actually are. Soon enough I was having conversations with engineers about how they better not work 20 hours because they just weren’t that good. Others suddenly started leaving early because they had “finished their tasks for the day” (how you are ever finished in a startup is beyond me). Others would have a particularly big breakthrough on a given week, and so their instinct would be to take the rest of the week off versus doubling down.
Somehow, slowly, what felt like a decision about meritocracy turned into two things:
1. It caused people to think about their output on a task/project level instead of the good of the company — ironically accelerating a kind of “big company” thinking way too early in a startups life. One of the wonderful things about a startup is that time period when everyone cares about the whole outcome not just their task. It’s more satisfying for everyone to not be a cog in the machine trying to work through your “x required outputs per person per man week.”
2. It caused lots of conversations about people’s relative worth that was corrosive and negative. 10x is very subjective term and trying to compensate for it with hours worked instead of other ways (ie more equity) led to a bunch of unhelpful conversations.
I have seen this repeated, in various forms, at almost every startup I’ve worked at - with one exception. At Zynga there was an engineer, Chris Roberson, who worked remotely. He is 10x, an amazing engineer as well as communicator. I have no idea if he only worked 20 hours a week or 80, and frankly I don’t care because he did amazing, impactful work. And of course being out of the office meant he was compensated not based on his hours, but his output.
The transition from full-time onsite to offsite is not uncommon for 10xers. I would recommend this only if you have already determined the person is 10x and it is a rare exception. As an exception it can actually work really well, but as a matter of habit it becomes problematic.
Setting the precedence that your value is solely the code written or UI created is a critical underestimation of the your value. Communication and alignment is at least 50% of the job in an early stage startups. This is very different from an ongoing small business, such as 37 Signals, which is largely maintenance. At a startup, you are growing so aggressively and pushing so hard that allowing for the communication so you can move together as a single unit for as long as possible is the challenge. Once you lose that, you basically lose your startup agility advantage.
Ultimately your value to a business is not just the code you write, it is what you contribute to the culture, team, and company. So I encourage 10xers to be around to enable and help others on the team, and if they are truly unhappy then perhaps move to a part time, offsite relationship over time.