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
I'll throw in a correction. Your link to your former article "Has Joel Spolsky jumped the shark", you were mistaken in your entire analysis of Wasabi(which wasn't a new language at all but a superset of features). You took that back(mostly) in "Nobody Cares What Your Code Looks Like" (http://www.codinghorror.com/blog/archives/001022.html). Something to note there Jeff, is that people turning away from the trend are not neccesarily irrelevent to everyone, just to you.
Meanwhile, about the article itself...PG is right there is some inherent 'awesome' trait in running a startup(for lack of better word). But that awesome trait is mostly just sheer ego-stroking, because as Joshua Haberman mentioned a few posts before me, you're not solving anything complex. You're just doing it by yourself.
The absolute assumption that startup == good, big company == bad, is just wrong, and it's annoying to see Paul keep pushing it. Of course, he needs to keep that myth going to get a steady stream of Y-Combinator recruits.
I'm sure Paul would belittle anybody taking a government job, but hey, designing a space probe mission for NASA might be one of the coolest challenges imaginable - much more rewarding than doing yet another Facebook widget.
Spending those first years out of college at a successful big company can teach you a lot about engineering practice and management, sparing you a lot of dumb mistakes when/if you do go out on your own. If you're successful in a big company, quite often you'll have opportunities to meet people and go places that'll never happen at a small startup. And a few years at a big company is a great way to meet a lot of people; a professional network that comes in handy years down the road.
I've done all three (startups, big companies, medium sized) and to generalize the experience just on size and whether or not your a founder is missing the boat. You really need to evaluate the situations individually. This goes for financial rewards too; well run large companies have no trouble making their top contributors rich.
I'm not sure this is new - his book includes an essay about how geeks grew up to p4wn the jocks - an essay about personal adolescent experience assumed to apply to anyone in software engineering.
You have to find what you can from his writing, but for me it has always been slim pickings.
"I think startup founders, though statistically outliers, are actually living in a way that's more natural for humans."
Yes, PG is full of himself, but i think you may have missed what he was getting at. The quote above shows his general disdain for the limited, packaged, unthinking, brutish, and _undignified_ quality of modern life for most of us. Early twentieth-century socialist Americans agreed - with Palo Alto's own Leland Stanford becoming a co-operative-loving socialist when he finally saw the light of day. Why should normal, competent men be told what to do, Stanford thought -- they're perfectly capable.
What gets PG's goat, it seems, is that relatively privileged, smart, hard-working kids should want to participate in this awful existence known as 'the 9 to 5', rather than strike out on their own and attempt to do something great - possibly something even world-changing. And watching these clones root around some cookie-cutter downtown Palo Alto cafe performing some absurd exercise is more than he can stand. These kids could _be_ something - they could _do_ something, but instead, some nutjob decided it'd be cool to send them on some wacky easter egg hunt. They could be busy trying to save the world, but instead, they're busying conditioning their brains to be subservient to the dictatorship that is modern corporations.
That's the crux of it. And on that part, I see his pov.
Somewhere along the line he must've been exposed to a good bit of Chomsky (anarchist) or Rothbard (libertarian), to give him that flair for the possibilities of one's own life - and given him that disdain for being told what to do, to 'follow the rules' and play it safe.
Really, 'happiness' is besides the point.
The presumption of a lack of greater responsibilities is its own narcissistic bubble surrounding large chunks of the Internet, by demographic causes. The belief that any more than a minuscule minority of people regardless of age are in a position to take certain risks is a chronic myopia of the comfortable programmer set.
"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."
I can't believe I just read that on a blog where 90% of the links go to other postings by the same person on the very same blog like a twisty little maze of passages designed to spin you about like a funhouse hall of mirrors. Kettle, this is what the pot looks like.
Paul Graham is wrong about a lot of things. That post was just one more thing.
Good God Man! Are you so blind to even realize that you started going the exact same path a few months ago and are declining sharper with every single post? Go read the comments on your previous posts on news.yc and reddit and you'll see that you're becoming irrelevant.
I can't believe I just read that on a blog where 90% of the links go to other postings by the same person on the very same blog like a twisty little maze of passages designed to spin you about like a funhouse hall of mirrors
This made me laugh! What you're referring to is actually a quote from Maciej Ceglowski's blog, which is outstanding. I recommend it: http://www.idlewords.com/
This Aaron Swartz interview of Maciej is also excellent and not to be missed:
Go read the comments on your previous posts on news.yc and reddit and you'll see that you're becoming irrelevant.
Apparently, the difference between me and Paul Graham is that I *know* I'm full of crap. Well, that, and several million dollars.
Paul Graham writes his essays for his own sake, specifically for the purpose of clarifying his own thoughts. As he should. He's nice enough to let us read them, but that is secondary.
I'm pleased someone wrote this article - nothing pisses me off more as a "caged monkey" to hear entrepreneurs (Steve Pavlina, Graham) talk themselves up. Most entrepreneurs fail - the few successes may reflect some talent, but they also represent a boatload of luck, which obviously isn't something they have worked for or "deserve". They took a risk, which is hard, but the compensation for that is the profits they make.
Often these people seem to assume they have something special, but just because these people are successful at setting up their firm doesn't mean they have any special knowledge or wisdom - they're just richer, that's all. I don't want to put them down - they do a lot for the economy, small businesses are better and more nimble, I just don't accept they have anything to tell me.
Also - although I'm glad someone criticises these people, I'd rather it wasn't Jeff. I love this blog, it's the best techie blog, and openly criticising other bloggers could expose you to a lot of flaming.
I have been working for more than 7.5 yrs at big corporations (more than 50000 people). I totally relate to what Paul has said. I do not think it was a narcissist exploration. The whole point of the essay was to say working for yourself in a startup tends to bring out the best in you. Rather than having your mood/ capabilities wrecked by a Dilbertian boss, it is quite understandable that working for yourselves will really bring out the natural self.
In organizations one is forced to take up the personality of the organization (which in turn is a function of the immediate boss, the top management and whole lot of things). One becomes a corporate animal and takes on a being that is not one's own self. You become a smooth talker, you have to work your way through the office politics.
Just by the very nature of working for yourself, how you will approach work, business etc will be based on what comes naturally to you.
I think this is what Paul meant when he said the programmers working in startup were more worried and more happier than before, at the same time. I can perfectly relate this to the lions in the wild. They know and enjoy their power, but all the same they are alert and have to strive to maintain their territory or keep themselves alive.
I think you've misinterpreted what Paul's essay said. To me the main point of his article was that small groups retain freedom for its individuals whereas large organisations must necessarily create some kind of hierarchical structure in which the amount of freedom an individual gets diminishes proportionally the further down the hierarchy they are. I don't see anything in that essay that says smart guys go to startups and dumb ones go to big companies. That's a conclusion that you, not Paul, have drawn from the essay, and it happens to be a false conclusion at that.
Jeff... did you even read his article? It doesn't seem like it based off your comments on it.
Enough with your muckraking already.
I liked you better when you weren't a literary critic. You missed the analogy. No worries since you are a programmer and not an English major.
You support the point you originally attack. Your argument is incongruent. No problem, you aren't a philosophy major.
The original author makes a value judgment... He values and holds in a higher regard the nature of the stray cat over the nature of a domestic. You may find the analogy distastfull, but you don't deny the meaning. Your criticism is "he calls certain programmers caged animals". It's an analogy, a metiphor.
A pig, once experiencing the life of a man, will no longer be content with a pig's life.*
This is why he writes the way he does.
*zomg if you think I called people pigs you missed the point.
As someone who works at a big box as a programmer I whole-heartedly agree with Paul's comments. Innovation is hindered, senior decision makers are often those that stay longer enough to be promoted and not necessarily those that are smart enough or technically-minded enough to make good decisions. Every attempt to introduce new technologies, new tools, new ways of doing things are strongly resisted at every level.
It no fun being a geek at places like these! :)
However, not every big company is like this, but I feel that often techies at non-technical companies are often seen as overhead, and managed by people who aren't qualified to make technical decisions.
I think from an individual point of view, one can learn more working for smaller companies (or a team?) or for a start-up as one has to learn more as one's responsibilities are more multi-faceted.
"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?"
He didn't say that.
From the article: "Working for yourself doesn't have to mean starting a startup, of course."
You are entitled to form your own opinion of course, as is Paul Graham entitled to his. But it would be nice to see little more respect in another person's opinion, at least enough to read through and try to understand what they are trying to say.
It would lead to a lot less of this frothing-at-the-mouth, oh-noes-I-am-so-offended attitude that occurs because you are in such a hurry to say something about the latest topic making the rounds in the blogosphere.
It makes the whole thing more boring and depressing for the rest of us to read.
So please (everyone), try adding some *signal* to the discussion, rather than get hung up on the fact that you think someone else on the internet is *wrong* (because that never happens, right?)
Anyways, congratulations Jeff on taking the brave step to be in charge of your own fortunes. Maybe a few years later you can go back to this particular essay and re-evaluate what it is saying.
Personally, as someone who's been through both startups (not as a founder) and large corporations, the main points that Mr. Graham is making certainly rings true to me -- that is, corporation by its nature forces a structure on you that in many cases kills innovation and new ideas. This in turn leads to unhappier people and reduces self-development opportunities.
Notice the words "in many cases" and "reduces". It doesn't mean all the time everywhere and completely.
(This is most likely straw-mannish, in that it takes the position to an extreme, but it's only a blog comment, so what the hey)
Founding a startup is good. Being an employee is bad. If the startup grows larger than one person, then doesn't it have to acquire employees? Who are bad, and therefore the sort of people we should sneer at?
I dunno, I've never started a real company and probably never will. And until my kids are grown up I won't be able to take the risk of starting something, if ever I do. Then again, most startups fail, and of those that don't, I'll bet most of the founders won't make the $300K a year I make. Every year. Velvet handcuffs don't chafe too hard.
You know, it's traditional when criticizing an essay to argue that the author is wrong.
Above, you claim Graham is self-absorbed, irrelevant, tells distasteful anecdotes, is incredibly condescending, retroactively offensive, triggers the average reader's gag reflex, is disdainful, and is dismissive.
Even were all of that to be true, none of it has any bearing on whether his argument in the cited essay is actually wrong or not.
Ad-hominem arguments may feel pretty good when you're making them, but ultimately they waste everyone's time and attention.
PG fires back!
While I'd love to eventually have my own biz, its tough to do when you have people depending on you... Paul's stuff really applies to web startups, though, doesn't it? All his other essays are specific about web startups. If you're doing some other kind of tech startup, its not necessarily be 100% on the mark...
I don't think Paul's suggestion is that the emonly/em way is through creating your own startup. I think it's more that emhis/em only way is through creating his own startup.
The strange irony would be, of course, that he's no longer a startup -- he's a emmanager/em now, effectively. He doesn't report to anybody but himself, which could explain why he doesn't sense the reporting -- self-dialogue isn't unusual.
Given that context, of course, everybody's in cages. It's partly a question of how big one's cage happens to be (12x10 versus Africa), and partly a question of whether you percieve your boundaries or not. Being trapped is a state of mind, not a state of being, in that sense.
My comments relate to Graham’s Cliff Notes summary of his essay, rather than his underlying essay.
Every profession has a pecking order. The fact is some people are better at doing X than other people are. There are at least four factors that could determine where one sits in the hacker pecking order:
1. How smart you are
2. What you have contributed
3. Do you have the guts to start a start-up?
4. If you do, were you successful?
On that score, Graham does very well in the pecking order. He’s clearly brilliant. He has made numerous contributions -- spam filters, author of the two leading books on LIPS, ARC, just to name a few. He had the guts to start a start-up and he was successful, having sold it to Yahoo. The only thing he is missing is being co-founder of, say, Google or Microsoft or Apple or Adobe.
Graham says people think his group are elitists, implying the opposite, that they are not. Of course they are elitists! But why is that bad? Graham does not like Java is that it was designed with training wheels, to prevent programmers from doing stupid things. That may be necessary for some programmers, but it is not necessary for Graham and his target market -- the very top programmers, who do not need training wheels, who do not need to have the language prevent them from doing stupid things. (Have you ever met a LISP programmer who was not very very smart?) His primary partner, Robert Morris, is a professor at MIT. These are two uber elitists.
Graham likes to write essays that challenge orthodoxy and he is very good at doing so. See, for example, his essay “Mind the Gap,” in which he argues that a higher rate of income inequality may be a good thing rather than a bad thing (www.paulgraham.com/gap.html). It’s hard to think of a more controversial proposition than that. So me thinks that Graham’s next challenge-conventional-thinking essay should be why elitism is good, not bad. And he does not have to start from scratch, he can read “In Defense of Elitism” by William Henry (a href="http://www.amazon.com/Defense-Elitism-William-Henry/dp/0385479433"http://www.amazon.com/Defense-Elitism-William-Henry/dp/0385479433/a).
So why does Graham want to portray his group as non-elitists even though they clearly are? Because elitism has a bad rap. Some elitists are smug and arrogant but I do not think Graham is. I am pretty smart, or so I have been told. But I do not think I am as smart as Graham. When I read Graham’s essay, I feel, “OK, this guy is smarter than me, but he is not arrogant about it, he is laying out his arguments in a clear concise logical manner so that others, almost all of whom are not as smart as he is, can follow his logic.” That is not arrogant.
Some people criticize elitists if they do not give something back. Graham is clearly giving something back. His essays are free. If you don’t want to buy his book, you can read all of them (I think) online for free. He is giving ARC away for free. Although Ycombinator is hardly non-profit, I am still shocked at little equity they take (an average of 6 percent) in exchange for what they provide.
Graham argues that Ycombinator would not exist if all it did is fund “rare geniuses.” That is true but misleading at the same. I have been an entrepreneur all my life, so far successfully. The thought of working for the man, I would just jump off a bridge and die. But starting and running a company is a bitch, even for someone like me who is genetically programmed for it (and for nothing else). Our society glorifies entrepreneurship, which is a sign that our society is more advanced than others. In one of his State of the Union addresses, President Reagan urged every schoolchild to consider starting a business. The fact of the matter is that few people are suited to starting a company. You have to be good at a whole lot of different things; most people at best are good at one thing. You work all the time. There is currently a best selling book, The Four Hour Workweek. Yeah, right. Try the 14 hour work day.
Few people are suited for this, and that includes gifted hackers. Few people have the balls to start a company and that is a good thing -- perhaps 2 percent of the population is suited to being an entrepreneur, I doubt it is as high as 5 percent. Perhaps among hackers, or gifted hackers, the percentage is higher, but I can’t imagine it is 10 percent. Most people are better off working for someone else. That fact, by the way, creates a lot of opportunity for the few who are suited to start companies.
Ycombinator’s thesis is that there is an untapped market of young entrepreneurs who could start companies but do not and will if they are funded by Ycombinator. Yes, there is such an untapped market, but it is not as large as Graham implies. Let’s assume Ycombinator funds thirty companies a year, twice a year, and each company has three hackers. That’s 180 people. A rounding error of a rounding error, since every year more than 4 million people reach whatever age is the minimum age for starting a company.
As far as I can tell, Ycombinator has been successful. There are several reasons for this. There were the first to market, that always helps, people think of them first. Graham’s awesome reputation and his Web site are extraordinary marketing machines, so they get the pick of the litter. On the other side are several brilliant people with a variety of backgrounds who are not virgins, they actually have done it before; in short, they have the perfect background to pick the right people to back. So Ycombinator may not limit its investments to ideas proposed by “rare geniuses,” but the caliber of the people they back is so close to genius it may be hard to ascertain the difference. More than anything, Ycombinator has been successful because they are able to attract an extraordinarily talented group of applicants from which they choose a few to back. If Ycombinator started funding the “average” hacker rather than rare geniuses or close to it, I guarantee Ycombinator would be a flop. Graham’s statement that they are not limited to funding “rare geniuses” is a misleading as the Dean of Admissions of Harvard or Stanford stating that everyone and anyone should apply for admission to those universities. The fact of the matter is that it is damm hard nowadays to get admitted to Harvard and it is damm hard to get funded by Ycombinator, even if you are really really smart.
First of all, I worked at a "zoo" where programmers were treated like caged animals. It happens to be a very large company that is renowned for it's "innovation". However, the software development jobs there were hardly innovative. Any efforts by even senior engineers was often stamped out or ignored by senior management. Lazy and worthless programmers were promoted just as high as the hard working employees who actually new their stuff because. As a result, good people continue to be the ones that bail out, and the dreck hangs out for their paychecks and promotions. A few friends who are still to fearful to leave tell me that working there still isn't enjoyable and it's "worse than ever".
Not all the people who have left have gone of to work for themselves or work for a microISV. Some have gone to work for other big companies. But the happiest, most lively ones, are the ones who are doing small company stuff or working for themselves. The ones that just traded one corporate job for another, largely because they are risk-averse, talk about their jobs like it is a paycheck. They say their work isn't exciting at all, but it pays the bills.
So I can understand Graham's analogy and I think I know exactly what he means.
Secondly, I hear people talking about being offended or thinking that Graham's is generally offensive. These people need to stop whining. If you don't believe it's true at all, then you would be brushing it off and thinking that he was wrong. If you're offended or bothered by it, perhaps it's because you feel that, on some level, Paul's cutting close to the quick. You know it's somewhat true.
While some of you may be working at large companies, with great coworkers and challenging projects that give you opportunities to learn, many are not. I worked for 3 large to medium sized companies before doing my own uISV thing.
I suggest people think about what Paul is saying. I think he makes a very valid point. If you're full of fear and risk-averse, and you want to stay happy in your cage, then stop reading Paul Graham.
And don't watch movies like "Joe vs. The Volcano", "The Matrix", "Toy Story", "Born Free", "Madagascar", ;-)
If I've offended anybody here, just get over it. Stop with the narcissism and thinking it's all about you. It's not. It's an opinion being tossed out there based on my experiences, which are entirely true for me and others who've been through similar experiences as I have.
Dear Kate Carruthers,
WTF? You're certainly entitled to your right to look down on Paul Graham or Americans in general if you wish, but look inside yourself to see if you can get the poison out of your soul.
I believe it helps to be condescending sometimes to really inspire and until strong words are spoken not many of us realise what we're missing. This is from someone who's walked the walk so I think it conveys a decent message of getting out there, exploring and really pushing your limits.
It's Paul Graham's opinion that I don't particulary agree with, but I understand somewhat his notion on 'caged animals in a zoo'.
A good article.
Heh, it's great when your actual subjects themselves comment. Quick, think of something to say about Steve McConnel!
Seriously though, as much as I liked Hackers and Painters, I'm with you on this one. I've worked in plenty of smaller startups now and the chances of anything special happening aren't all that great. I *didn't* like working at any of those and the companies haven't made it that big either, I think evidence shows that most startups (90%?) fail so those ones must be one of the luckier ones. And they sucked.
Most of my highest paid friends are in banking. They're often quite admissive about it being a compromise of sorts, but it's not like they're *caged*, they're aware of what they're doing and making a decent sum. They're not as keen on taking risks, and have other stuff going for them. They don't even see their profession as the main objective in life. Their goals are different. Live and let live. I used to play a lot of video games as a kid while most others did more normal social stuff. I would go to school for 8-9 hours and then come home and play, every day, until bed. Then I'd do this all weekdays. And all through weekends too. I was essentially addicted to video games. Even my health suffered. But to this day I'm glad no one actually approached me and said "stop playing games and focus on your school work". When the time was right I *did* stop playing games and focused and got the grades I needed. Often people do what they were going to do anyway, and there's no point in bashing them with an idealistic club.
If you're particularly smart, have an idea from early on, and are well positioned to execute on it, then that's good, but it doesn't turn everyone else into caged animals. Some just need more time experience, some of the most intelligent people I know just don't want to have their own company, they're busy soaking up details in their current profession. If everyone was forming startups out of college there would be chaos and our entire economic system would collapse. A lot of these startups (most?) get bought buy larger companies anyway, which, then to extend the analogy, is really kind of like collecting of lots of awesome "animals", letting them run around free for a while then packaging them off and selling them to a big zoo!
startups are more successful if you boot strap them, or get an angel investor. i've heard it said funding is like a kiss of death because the company grows but not organically/sustainably. hard times come or a competitor and bust!
did you know in china's zoos you can purchase a goat and drag it to the ledge and toss it into the lions' den to watch it get ripped to shreds in seconds. very educational and the zoo has lower running costs, how enterprising is that!
Also forgot to mention - current job (3rd job) is in financial sector (after 2 startups). Not only has the salary almost doubled, it's by far the best job I've had. It's largely due to the people I'm working with being more understanding of what I'm doing and giving me the time and autonomy to get things done while keeping open very clear lines of communications. I get done more here in 2 hours than I did in 10 in my previous jobs, because those places were run by a bunch of guys who were perhaps smarter than the norm but had absolutely no clue whatsoever about how others in the company felt, so what you had there were a bunch of startups with a few "alpha dogs" giving everyone else hell, resulting in people leaving or being fired left right and center.
It's all very random, because despite my experiences I'm aware of startups that *are* awesome and corporate type jobs that do suck - but I can definitely say it's misleading to follow this pattern as the norm, you could be missing out on a good opportunity. Get some experience and decide on a case by case basis. Best thing anyone starting a job can really do is take a quick snapshot in the first few weeks and get out of there if it sucks - or at least ensure they don't hold a "career inertia" where they "must work X years or it looks bad on CV" - that's exactly the type of attitude badly run companies prey/rely on. The result is a year of hell and you coming out of the other end (wrongly) stereotyping the hell out of that kind of industry/employer forever.
Lets look at this for a moment-
life in the zoo-
1. you have roof over your head
2. you get a free balanced diet
3. it is funny when you throw poop at people / other animals in the cage.
4. free infertility treatment
seriously, how many start-up founders bothered with team-building? Either you were apart of the team or you were not. Even if you hated each other personally you respected the work that you could do together. End of story.
Above, you claim Graham is self-absorbed, irrelevant
If you read carefully, you'll see that I wrote "I've begin to wonder if..", not "Paul Graham is.."
tells distasteful anecdotes, is incredibly condescending, retroactively offensive, triggers the average reader's gag reflex, is disdainful, and is dismissive.
All of those attributes apply to the particular essay, not Paul Graham as a person.
For the record, I found the essay all of those things, and I still do. But I'm glad Mr. Graham found the time to post a clarifying response ( http://www.paulgraham.com/bossnotes.html ), so all's well that ends well, I suppose. I still think the original essay is a hugely flawed; it goes in about fifteen strange directions and only two or three clear, understandable ones.
Hint: when a significant percentage of the audience "read[s] an essay.. and comes away with the idea that it says exactly the opposite", the problem isn't with the audience.
It's very easy to criticize people on the other side of the fence. Zoo schmoo. Myoptic punters needing to convince themselves that their choices are somehow better. Nobody wants to be wrong, and everybody is a special and unique snowflake.
1. Don't allow yourself to be underpaid. (this goes for overtime too)
2. Don't work in jobs you hate.
3. Take risks.
4. Don't be a workaholic. There's more to life.
As the cliche goes, when you're dying, nobody ever thinks they should have worked more.
I left a 250,0000-strong corporation to start my own business last year, and Paul's essay (as they often are) re-affirmed my own opinions as to why I left. But when I left I didn't think for one minute all the people who stayed there were muppets. The simple fact is that only one out of every 10 birds faces a different way when sitting on a telegraph cable; I was that 1 bird, and 9 out of my 10 friends are not only comfortable working for a big company (in the sense that they have security) but also like the fact they have access to resources a startup could only dream of. Contrary to what Paul believes, some large companies are a very fertile environment for invention and innovation.
What's more, although I wouldn't give up what I'm doing for all the tea in China, I do miss my (high) income, the camaraderie of a large team, my spare time, the office parties and the regular sneaky trips to the pub during lunchtime.
It's not all that bad, it's just not for me or Paul.
That's what happens when one begins to believe, subconsciously or otherwise, that one's livelihood depends more on merely getting the attention of one's audience than producing substantive reporting/thinking on one's craft.
I certainly hope it doesn't happen to some other excellent bloggers I read.
The problem is that most startups fail miserably... Probably because most programmers try to run the business side of it. Programmers, in general, cannot manage a business just like most engineers cannot run a business.
Did Paul forget about all the dotcom bombs?
My 1st job out of uni was for a start-up.
It was all roses for a while. But being astute and keeping my ears open I could see the cracks starting to appear. It didn't take long but, things started to go sour. Seeing this, a couple of us quit, moved interstate and got jobs for large companies. At the time I was owed around $6k, it took around 2 months after leaving to get all of it.
A friend who stayed there contacted me yesterday. Two years later he has quit and decided he would actually like the $20k+ he is owed O_o
Ok, maybe you're one of the few people that doesn't hate their programming job. Great, kudos.
Maybe PG wrote a distasteful or self-serving post; hey, nobody's perfect.
Whatever you think about PG some facts about working for someone else remain:
1) Everything you do belongs to your employer. You're not building any equity. You may think you're building a professional network but you don't get much network value out of seeing and working with the same people with the same skillsets for years.
2) Job security is a dangerous myth. At any time your employer could be acquired, or go broke, or do a round of layoffs, or the culture could change, or your boss might be replaced by someone who hates you.
3) You'll never learn more than when your ass is on the line. I co-founded a startup at the age of 29, and although we failed, I wouldn't trade the experience for anything. You learn MUCH more about all aspects of business, technology, design, and marketing than you do when someone else handles that non coding stuff for you. Even if you fail you'll find that you're MORE employable after failing at something risky and exciting.
4) Even if you never want to risk starting a business, you absolutely MUST blog about coding, do your own coding projects, and go to gatherings with other coders so you can build your own equity.
For the record I'm a fan of PG's writing and have enjoyed the past two StartupSchools he's put on, but I think that in most cases seeking VC money is a bad idea. Work on building a business, not a VC pitch.
This is why I love Jeff. I love his sensibilities. For his manners alone I find him great! I find nothing more alienating than these off-putting, pretty much rude essays that basically boil down to "my way of doing things is right."
I have great respect for a person who's able to secure a well-paying, steady job. Of course there's more potential in starting your own company/whatever, but there's also more risk.
I'm going to go back to my cage and munch on my rather delicious banana.
Haha, nevermind, you already did.
Graham's analogy is offensive but true. It would not be so offensive and painful if it did not have the ring of truth. Why do we get such great work from people working for free ie open source? Sadly we can not all be fulfilled by work but it can give you the means to attain your dreams. Don't kill the messenger no matter how useful.
Sure, leaping off a cliff is great when you're 20. But the brutal truth is that over 90% of those startups will fail within 5 years. Sometimes they fail because market conditions weren't right, or because they couldn't raise enough capital. But most often they fail because passion and enthusiasm are no substitute for experience.
It doesn't matter how smart you think you are. Starting a business venture has a brutal way of teaching you how much you really don't know. So then what happens? You wind up in the corporate "zoo". Does that make you less smart? No, just wiser.
In your comment you say "That's all" it has more of an affect if you say "That is all."
That is all.
I am not sure if I am offended by Paul's essay after reading it in its entirety. Actually I am quite certain I am not. However, one has to read the entire essay to gain a better perspective.
I do however feel he could have used a better example. There is something to be said about people who take risks vs people who are risk averse. Nothing wrong with either.
I would like to see statistics on how many startups end up as successful ventures.
Most animals in captivity tend to live longer than their counterparts in the wild. So I guess there is something to be said about people who have long and successful careers with bigger companies rather than short lived successes with smaller companies.
I think we should all just be glad that he didn't write another essay on the wonders of LISP.
I'm not sure I agree with Paul's thesis that freedom is directly inverse to the size of the company. What you need is the freedom to build your software well. You don't need the freedom to stroke the egos of the board members or produce a good quarterly report. The critical question he raises (near the end) is this - how do you structure a company to permit your employees to be actively engaged and productive.
True, large companies create administrative overhead. But does that necessarily mean a soul-crushing, menial existence for all its employees? I hope not, because a successful, small company will eventually become a large one.
Wonder if developers were like founders back then had anything to do with the fact that the entire industry was being founded at the time?
I think a lot of Paul Graham's essay is actually correct - the average job in an average large corporation is indeed very low on autonomy, and this has all kinds of negative effects on enjoyment, learning rates etc.
However he fails to put this across well. The problem is that he's using very strong imagery - caged animals as opposed to human hunter-gatherers - which massively overstates the impact of this autonomy gap, carrying the association that the low-autonomy corporation job is linked somehow with not being fully human! For many people, a software job is a 9-to-5 gig while they pursue other interests, perhaps music, writing or spending time with their kids. PG's animal-vs-human imagery does not capture this difference very well.
In general, distinguishing two types of activity by linking one with humans and one with animals is about as strong as it gets - it really pushes people's buttons - you should only do it if the rhetorical effect matches the distinction you're trying to draw.
So the problem with this article is a mismatch between imagery and content, making it pretty ineffective as a way of conveying its intended argument.
If PG doesn't want this kind of reaction to his essays, he needs a friend who's prepared to be critical of his writings where appropriate.
But that's his problem, not anyone else's.
Why take offense? A code monkey is a code monkey.
Y-Combinator: they give $10k in funding in exchange for 10% of the company.
"Small businesses are the backbone of the American economy."
I can't care less about American economy. There's more to the world than USA, y'know.
I don't see what's so "disgusting" about Graham's zoo analogy... I think it fits perfectly. You are pretty much "caged" in a company at a certain size, where you just do what you're told to and have no saying in what will be done, where your freedom is limited to the bounds of the tasks you are assigned to. By saying that, he's not saying "all non-startup members suck". It means all those people are less free than someone who is pretty much his own boss, instead of being a slave. And it's fair to say that it's potentially more enjoyable to be free. Not having to just do what you're told also seems pretty "natural" to me. "This is how one is meant to work". Absolutely, Yeah. I couldn't agree more.
I'm an employee, btw.
But it's as always... if somebody says something that's true but unpleasant, especially unpleasnt for many people, as in, most people, the conclusion goes, it must be wrong and the person who said it is "condescending".
I pull the BS! card. The weight of a statement has nothing to do with it's truth value, dude.
@Nathan Bowers"1) Everything you do belongs to your employer. You're not building any equity. You may think you're building a professional network but you don't get much network value out of seeing and working with the same people with the same skillsets for years.
4) Even if you never want to risk starting a business, you absolutely MUST blog about coding, do your own coding projects, and go to gatherings with other coders so you can build your own equity."
Could someone explain the meaning of Building Equity quickly and concisely? I mean, it's obviously a brilliant thing, but for all I know, it just means Making Money.
I've looked it up, and I'm slightly confused. If Equity just means ownership rights, then how do you build that up by going to coder gatherings? When I meet up with old schoolfriends, am I building Equity?
@James Mitchell"Our society glorifies entrepreneurship, which is a sign that our society is more advanced than others."
No it's not. In no way does glorifying entrepreneurship imply advancement. There is no justification for this comment whatsoever, in what is otherwise a well thought out post.
#1) @ Joshua Haberman's "Now let's think about being a programmer at a company like, say, Google. All the boring sysadmin stuff is taken care of" ...
You picked a good counterpoint to PG's sweeping generalization, but framed within your own sweeping generalization.
As far as I can tell, Google isn't necessarily like every other Big Company out there. What are we debating over? It sounds like it's about PG's intentions, and if he's "sold out" by spouting gself-serving opinions to fuel his entrepreneurial ventures.
Who's to say sysadmin stuff is boring? Aren't google sysadmins expected to know how to program also, to address google-specific, "hard" problems?
Also, to say PG has it "totally backwards" seems totally moronic to me and a big wankfest of a debate to see who has a more accurate pulse on such a wide/complex industry. Maybe this is just an offshoot of how a programmer/engineer sees the world -- that problems are right or wrong and the world can be seen in absolutes?
#2) I've read Hackers and Painters - it was a good read. But let's not overanalyze his choice for a metaphor -- ultimately he is speaking from an entrepreneur's point of view.
That said, maybe i'm overanalyzing whom I consider the overanalyzers. In the end I say all this here is a total wankfest -- porn for programmers. I have wasted 20 minutes of my life making my point heard -- but is anyone really listening? And for anyone listening, is anyone going to think or remember?
Stop the noise!
When I read his essay a few weeks back, I didn't get the same impression at all. To me, he was more talking about the circumstances and the things that people don't always realize is happening, rather than judging them.
Ie: it's not to say that the people working for companies are not happy but perhaps they just do not know much else so they don't have anything to contrast against.
Following up to Tom... 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.
I think a canonical example might be Phillip Greenspun's experience at ArsDigita? http://waxy.org/random/arsdigita/
The CEO and other executive level employees of Fortune 500 corporations make a lot more of money than any of his startup owners. Just look up how much the CEO of non-defunct Enron, Lehman Brothers make. Also compare to those of eBay, Cisco, JP Morgan Chase, Goldman Sachs, etc. Hedge fund managers also make upward $1 billion some times.
I'm a bit late commenting here, but I can absolutely see Paul Graham's point about bureaucracy in large companies. Our small company (with around 15 programmers) was taken over by a somewhat larger company (but not especially large by industry standards). Even in this modest enterprise, there is a proliferation of one-size-fits-all procedures which imposes a stifling layer of bureaucracy on everyone. This slows down the response time to customers, kills innovation and tends to turn everyone into time-serving functionaries.
The process is similar to the accumulation of government red tape. In small organisations, individual failings might typically be dealt with on an individual basis; someone might be scolded, or sacked. The other employees would take note and learn the lessons. But in large organisations, learning comes by creating a systematic solution for the problem. Someone made a change to the code and broke it? From now on, a committee will meet to decide on all code changes. Someone installed an illegal copy of some software? From now on, only IT can install software. Rarely is a new rule subjected to any sort of cost-benefit analysis, so the costs and bureaucracy accumulate.
Then at some point some management genius says: hey, we could outsource some of this stuff to a couple of guys working out of a flat in Bulgaria. Seems like they work a lot faster.
Did you notice that he has taken this whole anecdote out of the essay (online)?
I agree very much with your post. I have been a founder of a company, and there's no reason to glorify it so much. The idea that there is shame in not being a founder is preposterous and insulting.
Paul's a very smart, interesting and insightful guy, and I don't know why he something says stuff like this.
Badly need your help. Is love supposed to last throughout all time, or is it like trains changing at random stops. If I loved her, how could I leave her? If I felt that way then, how come I don't feel anything now?
I am from India and , too, and now am writing in English, tell me right I wrote the following sentence: Cheap airline tickets for domestic and international flights booked to, from or within any country of the world.
Waiting for a reply :o, Palma.
I think I preferred Jeff Atwood's posts when they were more about software engineering and less about other people's opinion.
I was thinking along the same lines as Aaron. What does the high rate of failure for startups say about Paul Graham's "lions".
Also, you see blogs that have become well read, turn into something more onanistic and exclusionary. The readership gets huge and that can't be, because I'm not like the un-washed masses out there. So, the writing becomes more condescending, belligerent, and extreme in it's views.
It's been said before, but I think it bears repeating: Paul Graham is a weenis.