March 21, 2008
I have tremendous respect for Paul Graham. His essays-- repackaged in the book Hackers and Painters-- are among the best writing I've found on software engineering. Not all of them are so great, of course, but the majority are well worth your time. That's more than I can say for 99.9-infinitely-repeating-percent of the content on the web. He's certainly a better and more authoritative writer than I.
But lately I've begun to wonder whether Mr. Graham, like Joel Spolsky before him, has devolved into self-absorption and irrelevance. Consider his latest essay, You Weren't Meant to Have a Boss, which opens with this distasteful anecdote:
A few days ago I was sitting in a cafe in Palo Alto and a group of programmers came in on some kind of scavenger hunt. It was obviously one of those corporate "team-building" exercises.
They looked familiar. I spend nearly all my time working with programmers in their twenties and early thirties. But something seemed wrong about these. There was something missing.
And yet the company they worked for is considered a good one, and from what I overheard of their conversation, they seemed smart enough. In fact, they seemed to be from one of the more prestigious groups within the company. So why did it seem there was something odd about them?
The guys on the scavenger hunt looked like the programmers I was used to, but they were employees instead of founders. And it was startling how different they seemed.
So what, you may say. So I happen to know a subset of programmers who are especially ambitious. Of course less ambitious people will seem different. But the difference between the programmers I saw in the cafe and the ones I was used to wasn't just a difference of degree. Something seemed wrong.
I think it's not so much that there's something special about founders as that there's something missing in the lives of employees. I think startup founders, though statistically outliers, are actually living in a way that's more natural for humans.
I was in Africa last year and saw a lot of animals in the wild that I'd only seen in zoos before. It was remarkable how different they seemed. Particularly lions. Lions in the wild seem about ten times more alive. They're like different animals. And seeing those guys on their scavenger hunt was like seeing lions in a zoo after spending several years watching them in the wild.
I'm not sure why Mr. Graham felt the need to draw this incredibly condescending parallel with company employees and caged animals in the zoo.
I've actually taken Mr. Graham's advice. I recently quit my job to blog and participate in a micro startup. Even though I'm now one of the anointed founders in Mr. Graham's book, I still found this comparison retroactively offensive to all those years I worked as an employee for various companies and had perfectly enriching, rewarding-- dare I say even enjoyable-- experiences. Or at least as happy as a caged animal in a zoo can ever be, I suppose.
Mr. Graham's essay does contain some fair points, if you can suppress your gag reflex long enough to get to them. If you don't have time to read it, lex99 posted this succinct summary that I thought captured its flavor perfectly:
I work with young startup founders in their twenties. They're geniuses, and play by their own rules. Oh... you haven't founded a company? You suck.
Small businesses are the backbone of the American economy. And Mr. Graham is absolutely right to encourage young people to take risks early in life, to join small business startups with potentially limitless upside while they have nothing to lose -- no children, no mortgage, no significant other. I believe in this so strongly I included it as a slide in my presentation to graduating Canadian computer science students.
Indeed, you should take insane career risks while you're young.
And there are lots of large corporate soul-sucking programming jobs that are, quite literally, Dilbert cartoons brought to life.
The problem with this particular essay is the way Mr. Graham implies the only path to true happiness as a young programmer lies in founding a startup. If you aren't a founder, or one of the first 10 employees, then, well.. enjoy your life at the zoo. We'll be sure to visit when we aren't busy loping free on the plains, working the way people were meant to. I'm not paraphrasing here; he actually wrote that: working the way people were meant to. The sense of disdain, the dismissiveness, is nearly palpable.
He acknowledges that his perspective is warped because "nearly all the programmers [he knows] are startup founders." Therein lies the problem. These essays are no longer about software engineering; they're about Paul Graham. They've become participatory narcissism:
After a while, you begin to notice that all the essays are an elaborate set of mirrors set up to reflect different facets of the author, in a big distributed act of participatory narcissism.
Naturally, every young software programmer worth a damn forms a startup. Because that's what Mr. Graham's company, Y Combinator, does. They fund startups with young software programmers. He projects his reality outward, reflecting it against the rest of us so brightly and so strongly that we're temporarily blinded. We stop seeing our own reality and trade it for his, in a form of participatory narcissism-- we believe in the one true path to success, exactly the way Mr. Graham has laid it before us. Traditional employment? That's for suckers. Real go-getters start their own companies.
On the whole, I think I preferred Paul Graham's essays when they were more about software engineering and less about Paul Graham.
Update: Paul Graham posted two essays that partially respond to this post: You Weren't Meant to Have a Boss: The Cliffs Notes and How to Disagree. The latter is, as far as I can tell, a sort of EULA for disagreeing with Paul Graham. Based on the conversation this post initiated, I attended a Y Combinator dinner and got to meet Mr. Graham in person. That is, to me, the point of posts like this -- some initial disagreement ultimately leading to deeper, more satisfying communication. A net positive all around.
Posted by Jeff Atwood
Good Article as always.
Being a programmer is certainly more fun on a smaller team, or with a small company. I had a dream job (small team in a big company) that had the life sucked out of it by increased management and SOX. We wouldn't roll out changes because the hours of bureaucracy weren't worth the 15 minutes it would take to make the change. I hadn't realized how unhappy I was until I watched Office Space and my wife said, "That seems like your job". I soon switched jobs, but I am still looking for that right balance of creative freedom and responsibility.
Wow...I felt the same way after I read his article yesterday, and you explain it well.
I do find Paul's analogy interesting and insightful, despite how offensive and incomplete it is.
Some of Paul's earlier writings - fun and interesting ones - were also about him (for instance, his ViaWeb startup days).
He's probably insulated himself over the last couple of years and he seems to be very successful at what he does. These two things are probably correlated, and the two things also tend to draw criticism.
I thought you and Joel are buddies!?
Its very, very simple.
Paul Graham has a lot of vested interest in the whole startup business. Apart from the fact that he is an original developer and a funder and a great writer, he also profits from the whole business in the sense it made him a millionaire and makes him richer every day(arguably he would have achieved that anyway).
If you're in a startup you will be subject to some kind of insane velocity, either in the sense of a) taking off, i.e. becoming insanely rich or b) "moving on" (aka pink slip parties). It has nothing to do with stability. It's a do-or-die business. You have to take risks.
Arguably, not every business runs that way. Organic growth vs exponential "change" with 200% adrenaline.
It's just like the gold rush. The main point wasn't the movement or the spirit or the inner motivation, it simply was the fact that gold really existed.
Oh, well. Everybody decides what level of risk they can handle, or on the other hand, how much soul-sucking. His opinion is a little off, but nobody knows if you're happy but you.
If you're reading *anyone* to give validation to the career track you've chosen, you're on the wrong track.
But lately I've begun to wonder whether Mr. Atwood has become utterly self-absorbed and irrelevant. Consider his latest essay, Paul Graham's Participatory Narcissism:
He has spouted his mouth off (a.k.a. expressed his viewpoint) at someone else for expressing their viewpoint.
Actually he agrees with the essay on many points, except for some implication that he has created that one programmer is inherently better then another.
I'm sure there are some animals whom would rather live in a zoo, but that doesn't make them just as wild.
On the other hand, I'm sick of your drivel. My RSS aggregator cried tears of joy after I unsubscribed.
His tail should be right between his legs right now. Thanks Jeff. You're a hero.
As a young developer (22) I can relate to what Paul is saying. I currently work in a medium size organization (about 500 staff), and I dislike the weight of every decision. I long for the ability to make quick decisions and see where they lead, rather than do a cost analysis of every action. I want to make my own mistakes and try new technologies at work and integrate them wherever I would like. I simply can't do that with 3 levels of reporting to make each decision.
I agree that Paul's view is quite cut and dry. Either you are suffering under the weight of whatever organization you are at or you are starting your own company. This isn't quite always the case as Jeff pointed out, you can like where you work and not have it be a startup or a company of 10. It all depends on what you like and what company you happen to be working for. I personally would like my own company or startup that I can have more freedom to develop on my schedule and with what tools I choose.
For large hierarchial companies, I think he is incredibly on target, but I agree that his caged animal analogy is wrong. It's worse than that: the cages are nested. Your boss is simply in a bigger cage than you.
I really don't see what you find so offensive about the article. Perhaps you've never worked in a large company? Employees in such companies are regularly treated like children, and regularly behave like them. Zoo animals bear no responsibility for their own survival, and are protected from predators, much as children are. The analogy is apt.
Is that really pg in the post above me? .... can't tell either way.
Anyways, Jeff, great article.
All the debate around this issue has been focussed purely on work, on your job, on your career. A massive part of PG's life is his work, which is great for those of us lucky enough to be YC funded.
However, I've not heard anyone stand up for the fantastic employment Big Company's offer for those people who have a passion outside of work - hobbies, sport, I'm even including family and kids. With Matt Maroon's post on why not to do a startup ([http://mattmaroon.com/?p=340]) and the ongoing Calcanis work/life balance debate, it's pretty clear that startups don't suit those people that choose to apply themselves more fully outside of work.
I think a world in which everyone was as passionate about constructive work as PG is would be pretty bland. As much amazing stuff has been created in the spare time of office drones as in the work time of the silicon valley crowd.
"Working for yourself doesn't have to mean starting a startup, of course. 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."
Quoted directly from the article. There's a reason why you bug the crap out of me, and this article is indicative of why.
Some years back, Hugh MacLeod did a post in a very similar vein, basically comparing his life to that of the people who worked in corporate jobs and coming up with a similar set of sweeping assumptions about how inferior the people who made different life choices were.
Looking down on other people's life choices is arrogant and rude. It would be nice if more successful people showed a little more empathy for people not on their chosen path.
Hey Jeff, I really enjoy reading Paul Graham, Joel Spolsky, and Coding Horror. Not all of you are going to be right all the time or have the same view on things. However, there is a large overlap.
I find the disagreements to be the most interesting part. Often, that's where the best ideas get hashed out. I enjoyed this post, and now I'm looking forward to Paul's next essay. Critism is a good thing, like iron sharpening iron.
Incidently, I really enjoyed Joel's last post: http://www.joelonsoftware.com/items/2008/03/17.html It's his best in a long time. I credit Joel with getting me excited to read about programming, and blogging before blogging was cool.
it's pretty clear that startups don't suit those people
that choose to apply themselves more fully outside of work
Exactly. If you're not monomaniacally passionate about some particular job, then starting a small business based around that job is likely to be a very dumb idea. The job, and the abovementioned boring minutiae of running the business, will consume your entire life until the business gets big enough that you can delegate away the stuff you don't like, or (much more likely...) until the business fails (not necessarily through any fault of yours).
Plenty of people just as smart as Paul Graham have started small businesses and ended up destitute, miserable, and only allowed to see their kids every second weekend. Starting your own business is a crapshoot, many of the factors are not within your control, and the odds are not in your favour.
Oh, and even if you ARE a passionate and brilliant programmer, apparently you're still a loser by Graham's standards if you happen to be fascinated by some area of programming for which there isn't much of a market. Or perhaps you're meant to strike out boldly on your own in a business venture which you know for a fact is utterly doomed. I'm not entirely clear on this part.
You should really have the "Dabblers and Blowhards" essay credited better or featured more prominently or something, since its responsible for the nice "Participatory Narcissism" phrase.
If programmers had a union...
they wouldn't need to worry about if they had managers or not.
As it stands, it's very easy for programmers and engineers in general to just be used up and tossed aside by their benevolent corporate masters.
Different people have different skills. Some people love to code and solve technical problems and the idea of becoming a founder / businessman responsible for running a new company isn't that appealing to them. Great discussion and comments here, at Reddit, Hacker News..
I hope all this talk about bloggers-gone-bad will help you not go bad. But you are talking an awful lot about blogging already. :/
Well, it's YOUR fault (and all the others giving him too much attention for too long time)...
I never appreciated any of his essays, I just found his programming language opinions very interesting and similar to mine.
His essays? I never cared. There's no such thing as 'human' idols. 'Idol' means 'instead of God'.
Now we have too many of this idols... is that a sign that we lost the real God? (And what if He really existed, and maybe even resurrected?! OMG!!! (In it's real, deep sense...)
I see the analogy between caged lions and wild lions as perfectly reasonable:
The lions at the zoo are fed daily. They don't have to work as hard to simply survive. The wild lions on the other hand are in a fight for their lives every single day.
Seems logical to me. Right now, I prefer to be fed (paid), rather than fight for my life every day when my family depends on me.
Have you ever heard of the Wizard from Menlo Park? He loved technology. He loved it so much, he started a few companies. Managing his businesses never detracted from his genius, instead the money he made allowed him to pursue more ideas.
As the master of his own destiny, Thomas Edison had the freedom to attack any problem he set his mind to. As a self-made man, he had the money to back those attacks up.
You, on the other hand, can only achieve whatever Google and it's box of toys lets you achieve. You don't have the resources or the connections required to chase after ideas that are outside Google's scope.
You are limited by your corporate masters. You may love those limitations, but don't try to dress them up like they're some kind of advantage. They aren't. You are only as good Google allows you to be.
It would take thousands of you to replace a single Edison.
You might not have the confidence to be an Edison, but I'm sure that's also because you don't have the talent or the vision to be one.
A lot of people start companies because they see something that other people don't. A solution to a problem or the answer to a tricky question. Something opaque and obscure to the rest of the world is clear in their mind. These people know that if they're going to translate their vision into reality, they're going to have to be their own bosses. Because no one else can see what they see.
Visionaries don't make good employees.
You don't have a vision.
That's why you're an employee.
Can we please stop assuming that every time someone says something general they mean it to apply to -every single instance ever-? This argument occurs over and over and over and over. Person A says something general "women are stupid." Person B takes it as a literal statement that Person A is claiming that -all- women are stupid, and gets offended. Person A was just sad that his girlfriend broke up with him and was annoyed, but Person B is already in the offense zone.
Seriously, PG is not a moron. He's obviously not claiming that ALL employment experiences are equivalent to being caged. But Some Are.
We all need to stop treating people (like PG) as authorities and treat them as what they are - people saying things they believe. Take them or leave them. Getting offended is horribly counterproductive.
So, you're saying someone wrote an opinion piece on the internet and you disagree? 9 paragraphs of disagreement? Who's the narcissist here, chummy?
Shorter Paul Graham: "Let them eat cake." That he's so dismissive of the idea that people might value security, or have immediate responsibilities that mean risk outweighs reward, is deeply depressing. It's spoken from the position of someone who doesn't have to worry about paying the bills.
(I notice that his bio has no mention of family. That might be a matter of personal privacy; it might be something else.)
There's an interesting a href="http://www.plasticbag.org/archives/2006/05/how_american_are_startups/"culture clash/a, too: when Graham makes his 'sleep under your desk' pitch to British and European tech types, the instinctive reaction is to cringe at sub-Randian 'self-actualisation through individual capitalism' claptrap.
I'm going to have to agree with alot of the other comments here. While I found that particular paragraph you've written about a little bit offensive - an entire post to disagree is a href="http://www.codinghorror.com/blog/archives/000297.html" overkill/a.
overkill - a href="http://www.codinghorror.com/blog/archives/000297.html"http://www.codinghorror.com/blog/archives/000297.html/a
I completely agree. Paul has always been a bit of an egoist , but lately he's getting way to full of himself. There are many ways to skin a cat. Starting anew comapny that he funds at Y combinator isn't the only way to "get rich". Plus ARC sucks.
Caged monkey with stock options.
'I work with young startup founders in their twenties. They're geniuses, and play by their own rules. Oh... you haven't founded a company? You suck.'
As uncomfortable as it may seem I believe this statement to be true. But the opposite does not hold true eiher. You might have founded a company and you could still suck. So I also understand why you think PG's full of it. Writing about "the one and only path to happiness" is just a dash short of conformism in a much much more naive way.
I see lot's of people disagreeing with your blog entry here :), but I think that is because you ranted about something that conveys a true message in a defective form. So it seems that you are ranting about the message instead of the form. Or it is how people perceive it. People are fun when it comes to perceiving.
So, you're saying someone wrote an opinion piece on the internet and you disagree?
Well, I disagree, *AND* I'm one of those super-genius-startup Paul Graham approved types now. I work from home building a web property to be announced soon. Yep, I do whatever I want, all day long. No bosses keeping me down! I am a lion in the wild, TEN TIMES MORE ALIVE THAN EVERYONE ELSE, veritably bursting with fruit flavor!
I'm following his advice-- 15 years too late, but nonetheless-- and I still think his blanket "startups are awesome, everyone else is wasting their time at dead-end jobs" essay is incredibly self-serving and patronizing to every kind of employee in the world. Am I the only person who has had jobs I loved?
Look, startups are great, but they're not the one-size-fits-all, good-for-what-ails-ya miracle tonic that Graham appears to be selling in that essay.
Also, I don't care what Paul Graham says, pizza *is* awesome and any self-respecting programmer should be ashamed to say otherwise.
I have to completely disagree. I took advantage of people leaving for startups in order to make more money in the defense industry. I was able to retire at 32. I'm now 34, able to do anything with my time (volunteer, prototype, play games, host parties), and I'm extremely happy and alive.
I more and more believe that founders are the idiots and less intelligent than employees or a civil servant. They are risking so much and spending so much time on so little chance. Founders are not free man, they are slaves of the customers or/and the investors. An employee has much more freedom: He could quit his job at every point and try something new or more fun than to grease honey around the mouth of a customer or investor.
He could neglect some duties, he could go home on time, he could sleep well all night.
Of course, life as a founder has its advantages, because you could - at least theoretically - do whatever you want, but of course you have much more responsibilities and to bear the consequences of every doing.
A lion could be killed by another lion, or starve a cowardly death of hunger. A thing that does not happen in a zoo, but out in the savanny it happens every day.
"Have you ever heard of the Wizard from Menlo Park? He loved technology. He loved it so much, he started a few companies. Managing his businesses never detracted from his genius, instead the money he made allowed him to pursue more ideas."
Have you ever heard of Ithamar Chase who started up a startup, failed to establish himself properly, lost all his money, and died, leaving his family destitute and broken?
No, because he never got books written about him. Because he failed. His son got books written about him, because he was Secretary of the Treasury in President Lincoln's govt.
Oh, and you may have forgotten the part where Edison used ruthless propaganda and amoral business tactics to crush his opposition. Edison loved technology *so* much, he promoted defective technology in order to make himself richer and richer.
Oh, and to claim that he was a talented genius is slightly misleading. What he *was* was dedicated to his work, and willing to put in more time than his competition. It's rarely about intelligence.
"Also, I don't care what Paul Graham says, pizza *is* awesome and any self-respecting programmer should be ashamed to say otherwise."
I lol'ed on this one :D
I like people watching as much as the next guy, but to draw such conclusions from a casual observance is ludicrous. Even animals in the zoo are studied in their own zoo habitat. Maybe if he were to go to the company in question and spend a day with these people, he might learn something. He obviously had an agenda and used this silly instance to talk about it.
"As uncomfortable as it may seem I believe this statement to be true."
Well then, clearly it is. So any of us who don't decide to start a startup suck, huh?
Let's examine this lil' belief.
"Will we make more money?" Not on average, no. For every Brin and Page, there's a hell of a lot of nobodies who lose their life savings and go into debt.
"Will we have more spare time?" By god, no. Successful startups require a degree of dedication and commitment to your work stronger than practically anything else in the world.
"Will we feel more satisfied with our work?" Considering how many startups are based around making copies of existing ideas, we probably *shouldn't*. The fact that we do is partly down to this concept that startups are "better". In the UK, I think it's less strong than in America, where it's literally the national dream.
"Will we be more famous?" Actually, you have a better chance of making a name for yourself as an employee in a big company, with big connections, than you do as "1 of the 7 of the 10" in a startup. If you're not the guy with the big idea, nobody's interested, no matter how high you rise.
"Will we be more in control?" Depends how successful at business you are. There are plenty of stories of successful ideas where the original engineers lost everything due to someone with more business smarts funding them, outmanoeuvering them, and seizing control of the company/idea.
What I find most interesting about the YC site is that it's not immediately obvious from the FAQ what will happen if you fail. And that's important. Possibly nobody's frequently asking that question, but they probably should.
What I would agree with is that if you *ever* want to do it, you should do it when you're single, and no-one's depending on you. Just like a Casino. But after you've lost $60,000 on the roulette wheel, claiming that the guy with that money in a Savings Account "sucks" will seem that little bit more ironic.
I'd also be interested to know how many people on either side are or have been actually part of a startup, and at what stage.
I'm currently in a Graduate Scheme at a big company. Don't know if I'll stay with them after the terms are up, don't know if I'll go somewhere smaller, don't know if I'll start my own business.
That was supposed to look like:
"the majority are well worth your time. That's more than I can say for 99.9-infinitely-repeating-percent of the content on the web".
Come on Jeff, think back to 7th grade. Which of the following is true:
0.999... == 1.0
Paul's "How to do Philosophy" was the killer for me. Since I majored in it, the hubris was painfully clear.
When I thought of how others would perceive the article, I realized it was how I had thought about his LISP statements: I don't know LISP, and only have a vague idea that others thought he was worth listening to.
So thanks Jeff, for helping change the attitude that he's worth reading.
OK, now that I actually finished reading the post:
Thanks for writing this, Jeff! This captures my reaction to the offensive PG article perfectly. Here's hoping your own blog doesn't eventually descend into the same participatory narcissism, especially now that you're a Founder. =)
Allow me to over-condense your post as glibly and snidely as lex99 did:
"I claim to respect Paul Graham. But he made a cutting analogy about modern working conditions that I found insulting simply because I consider myself an exception to his generalization. So I'm going to ignore or misstate his main points and focus on that one comparison. And because he speaks from his own experiences and unique point of view, that means he's self-absorbed and irrelevant. Yeah. I'm so over him."
Your use of the caged monkey photo highlights how much you misread PG's analogy. That cage looks like hell. But modern zoos usually have more lush accommodations than that (mostly thanks to constant pressure from animal rights groups), particularly for lions, which is what PG zeroed in on. Zoo lions typically live in something akin to paddocks -- enclosed areas filled with fake wilderness, where the lions can roam around a bit and have a taste of the illusion of freedom. It makes the lions a bit happier and makes for a better show for the tourists.
But lions, like humans, are apex predators. Lions are meant (in an evolutionary or creationist sense, take your pick) to roam free in small packs and be the masters of vast domains. PG argues that humans are subject to a similar evolutionary pressure, applied in this case to working conditions: restricting a person's freedom with the machinery of a vast organizational hierarchy greatly limits their potential. As such, he believes it is as counterproductive and unnatural as forcing a lion to live in a zoo.
As to PG's apparent false dichotomy between startups and crappy jobs, I think that's more a side effect of his own pool of anecdotal experience rather than a deliberate attempt to plug his company. As someone who constantly works with startups, I think he has subconsciously divided the world into startups and non-startups, and much of the non-startup world is made up of big corporations employing many thousands of Dilberts. But on the other hand, he specifically mentions that you can get more freedom without founding a startup. So that blows the accusation of false dichotomy right there. And yes, there are lucky people like yourself who find enough freedom, even as a cog in a vast machine, to still find some fulfillment. Most are not that lucky.
PG is simply pointing out a trend that he has encountered: as company size increases, the proportion of enjoyable, fulfilled employees decreases. His post attempts to explain the symptoms with a colorful analogy, and then analyze the root causes of that trend. The fact that you are an outlier in his analysis does not necessarily negate the existence of the trend, nor is it a reason to be insulted, nor to relegate both the argument and the man himself to narcissistic irrelevance.
I have a different take on this. I think his blog is simple marketing. Of course he wants young, smart, confident engineers to consider founding a startup. He'll tell as many as he can to do so. His business depends on it.
Without even having finished this, I'd like to say: you beat me to this idea.
I was just getting started with an essay, Paul Graham style, asking the master to take a little break from YC to return to essays. I think he's left his true calling and found himself wrapped up in something good, but less good.
Good stuff, Jeff!
Paul is definitely guilty of over-generalization. In 2000, I left a company of 300+ employees to become employee #3 at a web startup. It was one of the most frustrating and educational experiences I have ever had. Unfortunately, the education I received was about people -- I never got the chance to learn anything new related to software development.
The startup was an almost stereotypical example of a "dot-bomb", including an ego-maniacal VC funder that insisted on control of the architecture, and made decisions solely on how impressive it might look to the theoretical entity that would soon be buying the company for billions of dollars.The company ended up running out of money before ever going live.
The company I had left, despite the 300+ size, had almost felt like a family to me. OK, a somewhat dysfunctional family, and there were certainly some dilbertesque moments, but a family nonetheless. The company was not a technology company, and the software I wrote was just internal software to help run the business, and I had a blast doing it. I constantly had new things to learn and new things to try, and often told people that it felt like I was getting 2 years experience for every year I worked there. My decision to leave was based mostly on money, and turned out to be a pretty bad one.
Paul's essay seemed very narrow-minded and provincial to me, like the local yokel that thinks that anyone with a different set of values than his own is therefore inferior. I thank Jeff for pointing that out. Most of the people criticizing Jeff seem to be agreeing with Paul that there is only "one true path to enlightenment". That just seems a little too fanatical to me.
I agree with dhimes: Graham is a marketeer. In addition to the startup vs. prole article discussed here, he's written other essays going on and on about the essential role VC money plays for startups. What does YCombinator do again? What a coincidence!
Jeff, give Graham some breathing room. To quote your own words:
"His essays .. are among the best writing I've found on software engineering."
You are not alone with this opinion. Paul Graham has become an institution, recommended reading by professors and clueful people
around the world. And rightly so, at least in my humble opinion.
So, lately he has produced some text of subpar quality. At least
that's my perception and apparently that of many others.
I, too, found his recent essays quite self-centric, heck even
*boring* at times. All this Y-Combinator inside stuff, and "everyone should be a founder"-rambling gets old fast.
Still, even his weaker essays are still miles ahead of anything that I have read on *your* blog so far. Think hard about who you criticize for what and where you are standing. It's very easy to throw mud at the idols but so much harder to recover the credibility that *you* may lose in the process.
My take on the recent Graham essays is that he's maybe so focussed
on his Y-Combinator stuff at the moment that his writing gets a bit lopsided. Nonetheless, even the essay that you cite contains so
much unfiltered insight from "someone who's actually done it",
biased or not, that I can hardly understand how you get to
words like "irrelevance".
Can you point me to another "self-made millionaire in the tech business" (for the lack of a better description) that freely
shares a comparable amount of insight into his thoughts and
findings with the world?
Heck, one that even shares fairly detailed information about
how he runs his current business?
Ofcourse you are entitled to your opinion and free to dislike
his writing. But please, use the big ammo ("irrelevant", "self-absorbed") sparingly. At least until you, too, have a few millions in the bank or written a few essays of world fame.
I don't mind Paul Graham cheerleading for entrepreneurs, but I hate the cheesy effort to frame it in terms of evolutionary biology to get that patina of scientific credibility. This has been a problem for the theory of evolution ever since Herbert Spencer invoked evolution to "prove" the virtue of the English ruling class shortly after Darwin. Everybody invokes evolution to demonstrate that their particular spin on life is more natural then anybody else's (and therefore superior). It's usually done exactly as Paul has done it, with no real argument other then a plausible fable about human pre-history. In fact humans seem to have always adopted diverse strategies to get along in the world. Some people get along quite well in big hierarchical organizations, and some do better in small bands. This is also reflected among our primate brethren: male orangutans are solitary, baboons have elaborate troop pecking orders, chimpanzees have alpha males and females who dominate a band, and bonobo chimpanzees are filthy pan-sexual communists.
The most interesting part is your reaction Jeff...
Have you left home yet or are you still living with mummy and daddy ?
Ooh, more meta blogging and personal insults. Exciting.
I am right there with you Joel. I've been getting the same feeling as you describe from PG's essays for some time now. Where once he was full of insights about human nature and software development, lately ever article is the same blather about why you should be doing a startup, and more importantly, doing the kind of startup he gets involved with, and doing it the way the guys he works with do it.
As for me, I like working for small companies. There's a balance between autonomy and stability in being an employee at a company smaller than about 40. As soon as it's big enough to factor out a middle-management layer and the founders aren't my direct supervisors anymore, I start looking around for another one.
Also, working for yourself doesn't necessarily mean doing a startup. Freelancing is an option that I've definitely looked into, that has the same kind of freedom PG talks about in the startup world, but which he conveniently, repeatedly, forgets to factor into these analyses of career options.
I'm also pretty sick of the youth-obsession in this business. Not everyone follows the assembly-line process of going right into college immediately after high school graduation and finishing in four neat, tidy years. I stumbled around several years figuring out what I wanted to do with myself before going back to school in my mid-20s to pursue a Comp Sci degree, started my first programming gig at age 30.
Sorry, submitted by accident before I was done... anyway, during those years, I delivered pizza, was a convenience store clerk, did construction labor, hung out with a lot of artist types, and most importantly was a "struggling" musician (if my "struggling" you can mean "poor but not concerned about it"). All those years, it turns out, I was learning about things: I ended up with a lot of useful perspective, experience and insight into how people collaborate, among many other things. A kid who went straight from mommy and daddy to the college campus to a "career" can't claim that kind of background. I always tell kids about to graduate high school: if you're sick of school, don't bother going to college yet. Hang out and get to know adults for a while first.
For young, bright programmers, Paul Graham is on the right track. I worked for large financial companies and they hire people in their 20s and suck their souls dry. Heck, even working for Google now can be a lesson in bureaucratic entanglement.
Young people don't have to worry about their family or whether the neighborhood schools are any good. They don't have to worry what is covered in their health plan, or whether their 401K is any good. If things go south, you can always sleep on a friends couch and bum rides until you get your next big idea rolling.
So, as Paul says: Get out their and be prepared to fall flat on your face. Come out with an idea, watch it fail, then come back with another. Maybe you'll never find the next great app. Maybe you won't be a multi-millionaire by the time you're 30. But, at least you tried. At least you got out there and got exposed to almost all aspects of development. At least you did meet a few who did make it. And, most important of all, at least you had fun.
When you get older, you get married and have kids. By then, your life is pretty much over. You can no longer think of yourself. Your family comes first. Now, you have to go to a big corporation and get one of those jobs with a health plan and 401K. Now, you have to have a savings account because your kids will drink it dry when they toddle off to college. I'm paying over $50,000 per year for mine right now, and it will only get more expensive as time goes on. At my age, a steady paycheck and a damn good health plan is extremely important. I also worry constantly about my pension and 401K. I may hate my job, but at my age, my personal feelings no longer count. It's all about the paycheck.
Do you need to be a corporate founder as Paul suggests? I'd say a small unstable company that can go bust at any time with a good idea and cutting edge technology will also work. Someplace that treats you as if you are part of the team and not just another zombie employee walking through the front door.
When you're young, you shouldn't be looking for big companies and stability. The last thing you need is to work for a CitiGroup or Bank of America. You shouldn't even be looking at a Microsoft or even Google. Go out and push an idea. You might fail, but whatever happens, you will be a much better developer because of it.
Nail on the head.
I stopped reading his essay about half way through. I got his point, "if you're not young and haven't started a company, you're inferior to me and my friends."
Suck it, Graham.
-- A recent company found at the ripe old age of 36.
A lot of people will never be able to get past the employee stage but at the same time produce some great work. There have been countless management/psychology books written on this issue.
Its like putting a wild bird in a small cage. At first the bird will want to escape but eventually the cage represents safety, food and water. The behaviour of the bird in the cage is not much different to the employees in cubicals. A wild bird and a caged bird sing just as nicely as each other. The wild bird is far more interesting plus you don't have to feed it.
Hmm...if we all follow Paul G's advice then who would the startups HIRE?
Come on people, it's pretty obvious Paul Graham's essays are all advertisements for YCombinator. Same to say about Joel Spolsky and Fog Creek. (Though I'll admit both authors are interesting at times).
BTW, I've worked in companies of 300,000 and I've been in the first 10 employees hired. I know now I'd never want to be a founder; you spend all your time talking to lawyers, marketing agencies and begging the customer. It's like this: a great chef may not really have the chops the start a restaurant, because he'd rather be cooking than poring over the books.
I'm shocked, SHOCKED, PG would write an essay like that. Actually, I'm not. I've seen this movie before.
As I was reading "And it was startling how different they seemed", I was expecting that to be followed "They smelled different, foul, ... like Windows programmers." Feel free to replace "Windows" with Java, that would apply just as well. So yes, I've read this type of essay from PG before. And I got tired of it and unsubscribed from PG's feed a year ago.
Paul lives in his own little world, where the elite programmers (like his often referenced friend Robert Morris) use Macs or Linux and program preferably in Lisp or if they must, in Python. Those that don't find this mold are stupid, ignorant and have no business being near computers.
PG is a decent essayist but what exactly makes him an authority on software engineering or programming? Yes, he has degrees from elite institutions. But what else? Oh yes, he wrote (in Lisp) an ecommerce app (Viaweb) at the dawn of the .dot com era, was bought out by Yahoo and become wealthy. Instant credentials. So what else? He's been working on a Lisp derivative called Arc (how original,the world needs more Lisp derivatives) for years. Still not finished or usable yet. And he funds startups [that match his qualification, see above]. Has he had any hits, besides Reddit? Anything that changed the world? Or even close?
So why do we still pay attention to this guy? He doesn't have a resume like a Linus, Dave Cutler, Guido, Matz, KR, Knuth, or someone who's had a profound impact on our software engineering world. Hell, he's not even DHH.
I guess that speaks more about us and lack of good soft eng writing out there. We're desperate for someone who sounds like they know what they are talking about. But I don't think PG is it. He's as partisan and judgmental as Rush Limbaugh or Michael Moore.
Jeff, I wish you wouldn't have promoted him. But at least you called him out.
So let me see if I understand. Paul wrote a post from his own highly biased experience. This clashes with your highly biased experience, and you wrote a dissenting response.
So far, ok. I like Paul's highly biased original opinion pieces, even when I disagree with them. And I like your highly biased original opinion pieces even when I disagree with them.
So I say to both of you, carry on writing highly biased original opinion pieces. What absolutely, positively sucks is when you take an original opinion and water it down with "your mileage may vary," and "on the other hand many people believe X," and so forth.
Forgo that pseudo-academic paper-writing/debating condescension. If Paul wants to write about how great it is to start a company using what he claims are powerful programming languages and you disagree, I would personally prefer that you write about how great it was to work for a company using MSFT tools without wasting so much as a word discussing Paul's opinions.
But the last time I checked, I was not your employer, so I cannot tell you what to write. See how that freedom works for you?
Paul has written several posts that have pissed me off and I suspect that is why he wrote them. In this case I think he is making a point without a difference. At the end of the day, almost all of us work for someone. Looking back at my career I have to admit that at times I had more freedom and satisfaction as a W2 employee than I have 'working' for certain investors. The cage of a 'founder' is often gilded, but a cage nonetheless.
Where does Paul draw the distinction between founder and employee? If you are the 10th employee at a startup are you an employee? Or is that different? What about the 100th employee or the 1000th? At some point, if Paul's companies are to be successful they will depend on the 100th employee. Getting your employees to think like 'owners' is key. Guys like Sam Walton were successful at making employees owners, despite the fact that his strategy didn't scale (of course his business did).
I can tell you from experience that being the 'founder' isn't as important as being the 'owner'. Google and Microsoft have made hundreds of millionaires through distribution of ownership - there can be very few 'founders' of great companies, but their can be LOTS of owners. Working for a 'big' company while you are young can help you figure out what you want to do when you become an owner...
Hey, if you are thrilled to be working at a large company, awesome. But Paul is taking the risk here and in most of his essays with the generalization "if you work at a large company you probably aren't as happy as you could be". He isn't saying "you suck" as commenters have been fond of thinking he did. He doesn't hate you or think you are a lesser being for not founding a company. Shit, many of his friends and people that he brings in to talk to founders are actually employees at other companies. He is just offering some advice on how he thinks you probably can find a happier path, even if you aren't aware of it.
It's all anecdotal of course, but its absolutely insane how many people you and I know hate their job. They liked if for 6 months maybe and immediately begin dreaming of what they can do on their own. And its crazy how many founders love their job, and couldn't dream of going to work for a boss. Of course some do go back and of course it's not ALL employees at ALL companies. But it's a ridiculously large number.
He's not trying to say he hates you or you suck. If you love what you do you are golden and you probably aren't reading his essays about starting companies. He's just saying how much he's noticed that getting out of the controls of a large company (many of them even necessary to keep order) brings a sense of freedom that just can't be matched. Even the author of this blog had that urge to see what life is like outside the zoo.
It's the guru trap. When you stop actively working on your own enlightenment and your job is to collect followers in order to aggrandize yourself, the only thing left in the world is you.
Paul Graham is peddling a pipe dream, folks.
It's like when you were 13 and dreamed of being a rock star. What you didn't know is that the record company ends up owning all your content.
And Paul Graham is the record company. He's telling you it's all fame and fortune, but the real money is in capitalizing those with the big rock-star ideas... and then eating them up.
Pretty heady talk from someone who funds one useless web 2.0 company after another. Has he created anything of lasting value or just bits of this year's fashion?
"He is just offering some advice on how he thinks you probably can find a happier path."
And you don't see the arrogance in that?
All this startup fever is about is egoist in the very essence. You do no want to build something that will help other people, you want to build things that is going to satisfy your ego by making you tons of money doing something you like. Or written in another way; The American Dream (for Programmers). The thing with The American Dream (for Programmers or not) is that very, very few actually make it happen. Like someone said in an earlier comment, 0,0000...1 == 0.
Today's lesson - most metaphors don't bear close examination.
Speaking of Thomas Edison, he electrocuted a goddamn elephant to prove a point, and he was still wrong.
hackers and pastry chefs was funny, but your righteous anger is silly dude. you've got your panties in a bunch over nothing. so he says taking action to shape your own future makes you more human than being a corporate slave. so what? is there anything more obviously true? how could anyone be upset about that?
and all this anti-PG stuff. can you really criticize anyone for being boring after doing a post on Mac vs. PC?
this is, as somebody else said, linking to your own 2005 post, blogging about blogging. it's boring fucking bullshit and you used to be better than that.
keep in mind that if a person believes that one of the most popular bloggers on the Web owes his audience to the fact that programmers are desperate for anything to read, that person is probably going to blog accordingly.
Apart from anything else, the whole point of this post is that you started reading something and didn't finish! How is that blog-worthy?
The things I love about programming are a fair distance from putting on a tie and toadying up to VCs.
If that means I'll never get to maunder about Lisp, so be it.
Wow - so patronizing to non entreprenuers.
What percentage of startups fail? Isn't it kinda like getting into the NBA? Yes, entrepreneurship is the backbone of America but not everyone is tempermentally suited for it - has nothing to do with "ability" or intelligence. Einstein was a patent clerk when he did some of his best research - he hated the job but it gave him a base to pursue his interests.
Not criticizing startups, just pointing out that not everyone's cut out for every job and maybe, for once, on this little corner of the Internet, it might be a good idea to dial the rhetoric down a little bit.
Jeff - I suggest you revist this topic after you have had more experience being out on your own as a founder. Paul speaks from experience and is expressing an opinion. Just because you don't like the implications of his opinion, it does not necessilariy make it wrong. Additionally, if you recall some of Paul's writings, you'll remember that ideas that many people consider as heresy at a particular point in time tend to replace other things that history proves to be only fashion.
I had the same reaction to the essay-a bit too much egotism and blowing your own horn. At the same time, I have to recognize a grain of truth in what he's saying.
I'm currently working in a fairly small company, but found to my horror upon starting that the prevailing culture is very much the "inmates of the zoo" culture, overpoweringly so. There's most definitely a cultural difference that PG is talking about, and for me you can see how people approach their tasks, not only as programmers but in the rest of their lives as well.
As a "drone" you approach a task with the mindset of "what am I supposed to do here? How do I fulfill the task I have been given?". As a "founder" you approach a task with the mindset of "what can I do here? What will work/be usefull?"
Of course, there's no clear dividing line between the two, and no one is either/all, but it is true that certain organizations pressure you more to "shut up and do what you're told", and in the long run it's not a good thing for you as a person.
Africa's wild spaces leaves a major imprint on someone; it is fairly easy to see the wild in its natural state and want to draw analogies between that entanglement of selves and relationships and the one that we call society. That's as far, however, as I think Graham's analogy was meant: as a story about restriction, nor as a comparison of hired developers to animals (after all, he also implies that founders are also a different sort of animal.) Not all analogies must involve higher beings or structures; when one says they are free as air, are they saying something about a sense of being unhindered, or are they saying that they are no better than a lot of hot gas ?
I would personally prefer that you write about how great it was to work for a company using MSFT tools without wasting so much as a word discussing Paul's opinions.
Similarly, I would prefer it if Paul talked about how great it was to work as a startup founder without wasting so much as a word explaining how traditional employees are wasting their time.
The fallacy here is the "must tear down X to make Y look better" strategy he pursued.
Where X = traditional employment and Y = startups.
Honestly, am I the only person in the world who has had jobs I liked? That I found fulfilling? Such things are not mythical beasts like unicorns and the ends of rainbows-- they do in fact exist. I swear!
you started reading something and didn't finish! How is that blog-worthy?
Hopefully it's blog-worthy because the 99% of programmers who aren't founders realize they have more than one path to success, and it doesn't have to be the one Paul Graham chose for them.
Here's a thought experiment. Let's say every programmer did take Mr. Graham's advice. How is it even *possible* for every company to be a startup, and everyone be a founder?
Always interesting when someone puts others in a box or drop a label on them or decide that those other folks can't possibly be happy or fulfilled because they aren't doing it "the right way."
Paul Graham remains a non-factor in my software developing life. While he and others blather or about what I should be doing or shouldn't be doing to be successful, I'll keep slinging quality code and developing strong ties with my customers. It is THEIR opinion that carries weight in my professional life, not someone like Graham.
I think you're projecting.
Graham's point is that established companies should try to maintain or create the atmosphere of a startup -- the entrepreneurial challenge, the risk-taking, the work-all-night drive.
Instead, they listen to their lawyers. They draw up policies (note how close that word is to "police") on everything from what kind of jokes employees can tell, to what hours they can serve drinks to one another on the premises. And what proof.
Then they try to compensate for all the rule-making with managed-fun exercises like a scavenger hunt.
Not every established company can act like a startup. But they don't have to act like totalitarian theme parks, either.
I've always loved Paul Graham. He's a very talented individual, and has many insights into programming. But you're right. For the past year, every essay he's written has been about startups and startups alone. Being that focused makes you ignore the environment outside your narrow focus. And unfortunately, Paul Graham has lost contact with the rest of the industry.
I totally agree with Paul Graham. He's definitely speaking from his own experience which turns out to be a very successful one. I have also noticed that employees even for the greatest company seem like gutless, castrated individuals **compared** with startup founders. I know as a fact that many highly gifted individuals but lacking the sense of adventure and guts that makes great leaders, hide themselves inside labs of the best companies.
Founding and running a startup is like trying LSD for the first time. It can be the most exciting and unforgettable experience in one's life, or it can hurt and leave incurable wounds in one's mind. So PG is like another LSD evangelist who had only positive experiences. However, early twenties can be traumatic in this regard, keep that in mind.
The attitude that only entrepreneurs have what it takes to do the job is insane. It is EXACTLY why so many people who start companies are lousy at running them in the long term, and have to make thier money by selling out and moving on. It is not easy to commit to the long term. In fact, "turning the ship" and re-making an existing software organization may be a much more daunting task than starting from scratch.
I do not know much about Y-Combinator, but it seems he is just trying to sell his product (or service, whatever). It's like Joel with all his articles about FogBugz, he even said (many, many times) that one of the reasons that FogBugz is selling well is because his blog is so visited.
And you do not fool me with your attitude "Oh, I'm almost a full time blogger now, but I still build stuff", you are sure going to use your blog in order to market your startup. And you should, you put a lot effort in it.
People still read Paul Graham?
As someone who has done both -- run what would amount to a "micro startup" in today's terms, and worked for major, very hierarchical companies, I tend to agree with Jeff. I think that Josh above got it right, about technology vs non-technology stuff in a startup. As a founder, you don't have nearly as much time to do the cool technology because you're dealing with mundane issues like business cards (and system admin, and...)
I think that several commentors are missing Jeff's point, though. It's not that corporate development is better than founding a startup, in direct opposition to Graham's stance. It's about the fact that neither mode is inherently "better" or "more natural." So, corporate work doesn't suit Graham, that's his issue. It's the fact that Graham is saying that you must either be a founder, or a loser. That's a false dichotomy and I think that is what Jeff is objecting to.
Graham's image of Big Software is skewed, too. While there are certainly many drones and companies that treat their employees like drones, the best companies have islands of enterpreneurship inside. They must do this. You can't grow a company and a product portfolio by purchases alone. A viable company must develop new products and most have labs and groups dedicated to new product development. Then they need teams that can take prototypes and make them viable commercial products.
One of the proverbs we tend to use in our local Not An Employee culture is "Being incubated is fine as long as you like the smell of chicken ass."
Or words to that effect. Graham is not talking about the same thing we are. He's not even seeing it.
Thanks for calling him out.
Kinda agree. There is more than one way to do it.
And not all companies are the same, it depends on the company itself, and on the people behind it.
Making a go at it on your own can be just as risky, but even more rewarding in your 40's and 50's. The kids are grown, some of us are divorced and most of us know a HELL of a lot more about our business than a wet-behind-the-ears 20-something willing to go on a scavenger hunt. And most of us have learned better people skills than this self-important a-hole. He can speak for himself. In my worst years I was working for people like him - but still felt far from feeling like an "animal in a cage".
I found the excerpt you chose interesting because it was exactly at the "lions in a zoo/on the plain" analogy that I bailed on Graham's essay. Condescending and offensive even to someone who is a) not a programmer, and b) a business owner. Perhaps his next essay will be on how the best programmers have left programming to become venture capitalists.
I wrote a reply:
If you're going to quote me, I'd appreciate it if
you'd leave all the paragraph breaks in. The
paragraph breaks in an essay are as much a part of
it as the words.
"Paul Graham is the worst blogger I ever heard of."
"But you HAVE heard of him..."
(Apologies to Pirates Of The Carribean)
Seriously, PG posts stuff like this to serve his own ends - it's MARKETING.
How long will it take Jeff to start blogging about things that gently guide his readers towards a way of thinking that promotes HIS new web project?
It happened to Joel, it will happen to Jeff. Nothing wrong with it per se, as long as you realise you're doing it.
Just read PG's rebuttal - he hides behind a one line "get out" clause.
It's a bit like saying "I don't mean to be rude, but you're fat and your mother's ugly" - you're still being rude.
Jeff 2 - PG 0
I find it interesting the way people read into things. Somewhere at heart, I'm much more of a skeptic. I read raganwald, PG, Coding Horror, Rands in Repose, or some MSFT-oriented blog where they fawn about the latest from the Redmond Firehose, and I ask myself about everything: "Is this true?" "Would this be useful?" I try to avoid reading anything personally, because nobody was writing solely to me.
I have also come to dislike ranting on my blog, after realizing that any post is potentially going to be a first impression. And I don't want to unnecessarily alienate my future readers/friends by having that impression being drawn from some particularly angry or petulant post. Having a strong, personal voice is good, but so is kindness and empathy.
I think what I'm trying to say here is that I don't like this post because it's devoid of something to learn from, except for studying the way people interact and respond to things. "Paul's latest essay sucks. Therefore, Paul sucks, and his future essays, now and forevermore, will suck because they'll be about him sucking. BTW, Joel sucks too." It's almost like Steve Yegge's old article on Perl which details at length how you should avoid it because Larry Wall sucks.
Is it making me a better architect / designer / programmer / sysadmin / DBA / businessman (pick any subset) to read this stuff, or is it wasting my time?
Give Paul Graham a break - it is called paulgraham.com after all - it is his right as an American to look down on people who are not entreprenuerial
Paul expressed a stereotype of companies based on their size. I get 10 messages in my spambox every day talking about how certain individuals aren't good enough because of their size. That misconception can be softened by seeing more data that illustrates the wide bell curve of both size and entrepreneurialism of companies alive today.
There are a small minority of mid to large sized companies that consciously cultivate culture and work structures the let geeks to their thing AND manage to capture the business benefits of doing so - 3M is a classic example where the the RD folks get alot of leeway to build new ideas, and as a consequence 3M make a crapload of new patented things and keeps people interested in working for the mothership who would otherwise disperse to into individual startups. Many of the less business-oriented inventors would otherwise toil like captain ahab for years underfunded trying to launch or market one product instead of cycling through 10 of them.
One thing I hear from Paul's essay is that there is a totally animal, primitive culture at work in his ideal startup. Everyone is coding, and no one is paying attention to building relationships within the company. Where is there trust that allows people to commit to ANY common vision and get through the inevitable conflicts of growing and monetizing and sharing the rewards of that monetizing?
With concious effort you CAN build at least a mid-sized company culture is something less bureaucratically structured than the death star and less chaotic than lord of the flies. If the social and economic system of that company is fair at 1-10 people, if you're paying attention you can scale that system by adding new units or "cells" based as unified "mini-businesses" by sales territory, product lines, or whatnot. Each of these units are equipped to find and bring on new people, indoctrinate them into your mini society, and provide them resources and rapid exposure to new ideas from elsewhere in the empire that will cross breed like a thought-virus, making the end product stronger and differentiated from competitors.
Why don't most startup companies scale without becoming Office Space Incarnate? They don't have a vision beyond building a product - when they should be thinking about building a lasting COMPANY. Startup founders in the SV model feed off short-term angel or VC "junk food" money and vision - they build something brittle on someone else's nickel, some small of them cash out to one of the corporate motherships Paul mentions, and they move on to their next startup. The remainder crash and burn. Building companies that last long enough to conceive and birth MORE THAN ONE product idea (YCombinator is one of these) is a lasting model that can outpace market change. A company like those YCombinator funds whose life support is based on one product risks losing everything overnight when competitors come along or market demand shifts - this is a basic truth about investment diversification. Paul is diversified because he's harnessing the power of many entrepreneurs - he "owns" a small cut of many different founders' efforts.
I wonder how Paul Graham staffs a startup with an attitude like that? Does he look at his employees as caged animals? Does he suggest to other founders that they should look at employees like that? Seems like an awful challenge to create a lasting startup if that's the view of employees that you have.
People in glass houses...
Paul has it TOTALLY BACKWARDS about what you can learn as a programmer at startup vs. a top technology company.
You think you're going to learn anything technologically interesting by starting your own company? Please. You're going to spend a lot of time figuring out how to make a product that anyone will actually want to use, a lot of time doing all the mundane business/legal/logistical work of running a business, and a little bit of time here and there writing a Rails app. Unless your startup's product is some highly technical niche, your company's technology is going to be tragically unremarkable. You're going to spend more time administering your wiki/version-control/webserver/SSL certs/etc than writing any interesting code.
If you learn anything technologically interesting at a startup that you hadn't already played around with in college, you weren't playing around enough in college. People don't start companies to become technical geniuses, they start companies when they want to change the world or become a millionaire or something. You think Mark Zuckerberg is a better programmer than he was 4 years ago? You think he's programming now?
Now let's think about being a programmer at a company like, say, Google. All the boring sysadmin stuff is taken care of. There's extremely good components you can use for your projects so you don't have to reinvent the basics (RPC, storage, monitoring, etc) yet again. Your job is to solve big, hard problems and your toolbox is filled with the best of what the brilliant programmers around you have come up with. They've iterated many times and solved problems you wouldn't have even imagined at the outset. And yet there's always more to do, because the data gets bigger and the appetite for bigger problems grows.
If you want to take a big risk and maybe change the world or get rich, by all means start a company. But for someone like me who really just cares about the technology, I couldn't be happier to be working at Google (for the record, I worked at a startup with some great, fun people, but it wasn't for me).
Fair enough you disagree with PG, that's allowed.
But why? - I mean apart from your own ego and feelings.
Do you think that its just as natural for human beings to work in large groups as opposed to small? Can you point us at a reference?