I have recently finished reading the book Joy Inc. by Richard Sheridan which is the story of a small software company that has been successful, most notably as being a great place to work. The CEO had come from a an extremely successful start to his career, he had been promoted up the greasy pole to VP of software for an established firm and he had become wealthy in the process. By most conventional accounts he was a success, but he wasn’t happy. He made a decision to change his work environment with a focus on creating a place that made him happy to come to work. This single minded goal eventually led to the forming of a software company – Menlo – with him as CEO where he could create a place of work that brought him ‘Joy’.
For those familiar with the work of Ayn Rand, I found a great many correlations between Richard Sheridan and Howard Roarke from ‘The Fountainhead’. Rich Sheridan had a very single minded vision and he chose the path his company would take without compromising on his views. The book portrays how he set the direction and imposed his plan of how things should be done, resulting in a company that has adopted many of the XP practices described by Kent Beck. The business has been successful and the workers are happy, Pair Programming, short iterations, innovative software solutions and a focus on quality. The workplace includes dogs and babies and sound like a fun environment. In many respects at first appearance this is a model that we could learn a lot from.
Rich Sheridan has demonstrated the effectiveness of using Agile Practices and that success doesn’t require death marches and unrealistic expectations. Rich has shown one way it can be done, and there is a lot to admire in how he has achieved it. There is certainly a lot to learn and I think there are a great many aspects of what he has done at Menlo that could be used as the foundations of creating a great company.
I don’t build in order to have clients, I have clients in order to build…
However, much as I admire Rich and see him as a modern day Howard Roark, it is because of that comparison that I also have a number of reservations. Rich himself refers to the book “Good to Great” and he acknowledges that he is not a Level 5 leader, this was an assessment I shared whilst reading the book. All his decisions were about creating Joy for himself, but there were dozens of examples in the book of absolutes, where his vision may not be compromised. I got the impression that he made all the decisions, he decided a process and it must be followed, if someone wanted something – such as the wonderful example of babies in the office – they asked him. The decision to allow babies in the office seems to be as much about wanting to be regarded as a great boss as anything else. That is not a bad thing but I am assessing this in terms of a model that can be replicated.
Rich is uncompromising in his objectivism and Ayn Rand would be proud. Which is only half a compliment, I always admired Howard Roark, for a while he was an inspiration for me, but at some point I realised that taking input from others didn’t automatically mean you were compromising your principles or were weak, we can learn and adapt and improve but still stay faithful to our principles.
Recruitment and single person decision making
His recruitment policy is a great example of what I see as this type of blinkered thinking. Rich has introduced a recruitment policy designed to prevent making mistakes in hiring. The problem is that his solution is to require two separate interview days, and then a 3-week trial, and after this they make a decision and the vast majority will be unsuccessful. Anyone else see the flaws in this?
To get hired you must give up 17 days for one interview. For most people with jobs that is not even close to being possible, and for an good candidate looking they will likely have multiple options open to them and this level of barriers to entry makes it highly unlikely that any good candidate would bother or be able to apply. Therefore he is limiting his recruitment to the unemployed and graduates that are able to meet his interview requirements. Now this pool will contain some good (if inexperienced) candidates, but the process has excluded so many other great candidates that I think it is an example of a process that has forgotten what the problem is that it is trying to solve. In this case I assume to hire great employees.
He clearly loves face to face communication and paper based systems and estimation using hours. Therefore everyone must comply, everyone must communicate face to face, they may only use paper based processes and must use hours for estimation. It is not that I am questioning whether the decisions are good or bad, clearly he is getting many right – he wouldn’t be successful otherwise, but it is a company built around a single individual. He is seemingly a strong CEO and charismatic leader, but that leads to an unsustainable business model, where does it leave Menlo when he moves on? What is his succession plan?
Using Agile practices doesn’t make you agile
Menlo use a variety of Agile practices, mostly from XP, but from the way the book describes it they are a set of rules fixed in stone, thou shalt do it this way…
The practices chosen are good practices, but I don’t think that Agile is about using best practices, I think it is about a mindset of improvement. Menlo had adopted a variety of practices that generally I support and endorse, but I didn’t get any sense that there was a culture of reflecting and improvement. Retrospectives did not seem to be part of the accepted practices at Menlo. This for me was the saddest omission, without retrospectives Agile is weak and ultimately cannot survive in the long run. Menlo seem to have adopted 11 of the 12 principles, but it is the 12th that I value most.
I so wanted to enjoy this book, it is one I had looked forward to reading for a while, but in the end I was left feeling that Menlo was actually on the wrong path. Not that using XP was wrong, but if you have a culture that is not always seeking to improve it will eventually fail.
I probably sound horribly hubristic, and I have not achieved the level of success Rich Sheridan has, so this may sound hollow. But Rich, please introduce retrospectives into your culture before it is too late and be prepared to let your teams guide you to improve, you may me amazed to find they have some great ideas. If you do I think you may find a way to improve on the Joy you have already found.