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"Dignity is deadly." - Paul Graham

Dignity_3

What goes away when a company moves past the start-up phase? Living only on take-out and caffeine. Working in a [small] living room. Crazy, stupid, unprofessional behavior. Wearing nothing but shorts and ripped t-shirts.

Is this a good thing?

Hacker-turned-start-up-investor Paul Graham doesn't think so. In his keynote at the internal Amazon developer's conference in Seattle (that I was speaking at last week), he had a list of 40 bullet points of things Big Companies could learn from start-ups. He doesn't have an essay up for this, but he has a wonderful, somewhat related essay that I'm hoping you've all read by this time on What Business Can Learn From Open Source. (If you're new to Paul Graham, he can be an "acquired taste". Very smart, often controversial, rarely politically correct. Almost always thought provoking--or at least hurl-your-mouse-across-the-room provoking.)

My head was already spinning by bullet point six, but the one simple thing that stuck in my head was "dignity is deadly." Specifically this thought (I'm paraphrasing):

When you evolve out of start-up mode and start worrying about being professional and dignified, you only lose capabilities. You don't add anything... you only take away. Dignity is deadly.

At one point, Sun wasn't much more than creative genuis Bill Joy ("Oh, I think I'll just whip up BSD Unix on my own..."), and troublemaker Scott McNealy. Yet by the time I got to Sun, using the word "cool" in a customer training document was enough to warrant an entry in your annual performance eval. And not in a good way.

I cannot count the times I heard the word "professionalism" used as justification for why we couldn't do something. But I can count the few times I heard the word "passion" used in a meeting where the goal was to get developers to adopt our newest Java technologies. What changed? More importantly, was it a positive change? Was it a completely necessary change?

Why do we go from the business equivalent of the unruly-but-creative teenager to a stuffy parent? Can't we be something in-between? Why not the motivated, fun, creative 30-year old? (I'm not being ageist here -- this is a metaphor). If we're forced into becoming the "parent", why can't we at least be the cool parent from down the street? And by "cool", I mean the truly cool, not cool simply because they supplied the beer. (The 37 Signals folks always have a lot to say on this "stay small and act like a start-up" approach as well)

Some argue that by maintaining strict professionalism, we can get the more conservative, professional clients and thus grow the business. Is this true? Do we really need these clients? Isn't it possible that we might even grow more if we became braver? Seth Godin cautions that today, "Safe is risky, and risky is safe."

I'm somewhere in the middle of this. I'll use the word "ass" as in "kick-ass". But when I use the "F-word", well, there you have it. It's the "F-word", not the actual spelled-out word. hugh macleod, on the other hand, has a take-no-prisoners view. He'll do whatever the hell he pleases, always being 100% true to who he is, and when someone warned him that if he didn't cut back he'd never get the Big Clients, his response was: "Do you honestly think I'd have a good working relationship with clients who are offended that I used the word 'penis' in a cartoon?" He doesn't want those clients, and apparently... he hasn't done too badly recently finding clients who like him just the way he is--pure authentic hugh--thank-you.

Yes there is a "Business Case" for maintaining certain levels of professionalism, dignity, and political correctness. And that's cool... as long as we're all recognizing at every turn that in some ways we are losing the tools we have available to us. That this need to meet professional expectations restricts us... perhaps even more than it enables a higher level of... what? Profits? Business? Clients? Respect?

The Head First book series was an attempt to use virtually everything brain-friendly that we were not allowed to do at Sun. And when Head First Java first came out, it immediately became the number one selling Java book, and still is today, just over two years later. I'm not at all suggesting that some of what's in Head First would have been appropriate for an official Sun course document, but could they have incorporated 20% without sacrificing dignity? Maybe.

By the time we ran things through the deadly professionalism filters, the life, passion, joy, and in this case--brain-friendliness--had been sucked out.

When "we just can't DO that here" takes away more than it adds, we should reconsider. But, people scream, "we can't afford to say f*** 'em to some of our biggest potential clients!" And I wonder... can we afford not to?

Posted by Kathy on September 26, 2005 | Permalink

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Comments

I swear we are on the same magical voodoo wavelength - even though I don't believe in that crap.

http://spaces.msn.com/members/shaded/Blog/cns!1pcUVdsqGjzbPov5sh3Flrdw!616.entry

Great post!

Regards,


Shaded

Posted by: Shaded | Sep 26, 2005 5:51:33 PM

I saw that speech - my pen was going nutso, while I was trying to keep up. I have the full list of 40 points in my (Awesome) moleskine notebook, and I also have the soft copy now in my writing database system.

So many gems in there, such as "Its good to let hackers interact with customers" and "You have to allow lame version 1s".

Hopefully someday he puts it up on his website, until then its just an inside secret.

Posted by: Ryan Rawson | Sep 26, 2005 6:49:17 PM

I'm the motivated, fun, creative 30-year old at my job, where I'm a young adult librarian. I'm grateful that I get to work with teenagers, the most creative, random, passionate, right-brained people on the planet. Other than the teens, I do not see "passion" at my job, only professionalism. And the other day, when I asked if we could reserve a wall in the new teen meeting room "just for drawing on" I was told, "No. You just don't do that. I mean, you just don't draw on walls." And that was that. I fantasize about what my library could learn from a start-up. Thanks for the post.

Posted by: Bri Johnson | Sep 26, 2005 7:00:32 PM

Brilliant. You've just inspired me for at least a few hours ;-)

I work at a small, innovative, company that's just over 3 1/2 years old. We used to feel like a startup. We had all the attitude and balls of a startup. But as we've got bigger, we've had to get more organised and more serious (a bit). But not for 'our' reasons, but for our clients reasons. From the inside I can totally see how and why 'the change' occurs, but at the same time it's a completely ludicrous thing to do. The reason why we have grown, why our clients are still with us, is because we think and act like a startup. And by becoming what we think they need us to be we're going to turn them off and lose them. Well, I guess there's a balance in there somewhere.

Thanks again, great stuff, always!

Posted by: iain tait | Sep 27, 2005 12:38:10 AM

Being professional is not bad. It's a good thing. It also has a number of positive meanings attached to it. Eg: reliability, acting in the client's best interest, keeping negative personal feelings out of the job, always keeping up with the latest knowledge, etc..

What we want is a Passionate Professional.

Can we think of any character that fits the role here?

Posted by: J Drakes | Sep 27, 2005 1:57:46 AM

Indeeed, Companies have to find ways to grow while staying Start-up.

Posted by: Tarry Singh | Sep 27, 2005 2:41:43 AM

About a month ago, Joi Ito wrote about how professionalism is conflicting with energy conservation in Japan:

http://joi.ito.com/archives/2005/08/31/damn_cool_biz.html

Posted by: Scott Reynen | Sep 27, 2005 6:00:18 AM

Not to be off-topic, but I've been reading "Eats, Shoots, and Leaves". The lack of needed question marks in this otherwise interesting post were definitely making me cringe. B-)

Posted by: GBGames | Sep 27, 2005 8:56:52 AM

And then I go ahead and use the wrong word. It should be "WAS definitely making me cringe", not WERE.

Posted by: GBGames | Sep 27, 2005 9:01:16 AM

Kathy,

Good post again… Officially, I’m a fan.

Sorry about the length of this comment but it is a subject I am PASSIONATE about.

First, I’ll make the claim that professionalism is not the same as policy-driven constraints that kill creativity, innovation, and interest. But the two are so often equated due to misunderstanding that it is difficult to see.

I view professionalism as simply being effective at providing the product or service you are charged with providing. Certainly, you might have policy directives in place to control aspects of what you do. But the policy must be driven by a purpose and not in spite of the purpose.

===========================
Anecdote: My family moved into a house that had a satellite dish and receiver. We called the company to activate the service and were told we needed a card for the receiver. We ordered the card, paid $20, and it was delivered. Unfortunately, the dish or receiver did not work. I traced the cable and tested it but could not get it working. We were in contact with customer service numerous times to solve the problem. Finally, my wife pointed to a “free installation” coupon for the same satellite company we were trying to get running.

I called and said, let’s start over. I would like to get the free installation. The customer service rep – reading, I am sure from their “professional” script said, “The free installation is for new customers only. You don’t qualify.”

“I am a new customer. We’ve never had service.”

“You purchased a dish receiver card a month ago,” was her reply, “you are in the system as a customer.”

My first response was to look for the hidden cameras. I spoke with her supervisor (the person next to her I assume) and was told the same thing.

It actually took a call to their corporate offices where I spoke to an assistant to the Director of Marketing. She laughed when I told her my story – not at me, in shock. We ended up with a few months free and an additional receiver.
===========================

This is a great example of “professionalism” gone awry.


Sacrificing who you are for a mythical professional persona occurs in careers as well. Nothing says that you must suddenly give up your person to be taken seriously in the professional world. In fact, becoming overly concerned with others perception and creating this “never-the-twain-shall-meet” segmentation of personal life, interest, and passions, with your professional life is unhealthy and leads to burnout.

There is something to be said for professional decorum, making yourself presentable, and adopting some of the corporate culture. However, on the flip-side, you are a part of that corporate culture and should provide some of the color and interest.

I recently blogged the topic on being yourself and its career impact.
http://blogs.ittoolbox.com/pm/career/archives/005926.asp

I infuse a lot of humor into what I do. It is how I am as a person. This means it is part of who I am as a husband, father, writer, consultant, etc. I refuse to make a distinction.

Companies and individuals need to determine whether their professionalism is mask that does not fit. If the mask is creating pain or causing innovation and effective work to be sacrificed, they need to remove the mask.

It is the professional thing to do.

Posted by: Matthew Moran | Sep 27, 2005 12:01:53 PM

Years ago I read someone who claimed that a major problem with society is that "solemn" is mistaken for "serious".

"Narrow-minded and humorless" is often mistaken for "mature"....

Posted by: Michael Turyn | Sep 27, 2005 1:52:46 PM

Completely agree. Passion in the service of conviction should never be bridled. As a friend once told me, "I swear because I care"

That said, using extreme language left and right is a little twisted.

Check out:
"95% of Your Ad Sucks" - http://www.offermatica.com/press-1.2.html


Posted by: Matthew Roche | Sep 27, 2005 9:35:45 PM

... "solemn" is mistaken for "serious".


I liked the Oscar Wilde quote so much I had a friend make write it up in calligraphy so I could put it up in my workspace -

"Life is too important to take seriously."

Posted by: Tom Biggs | Sep 28, 2005 6:39:36 AM

"What will it profit a man if he gains the whole world but loses his soul?" To deny who we are, as individuals or as organizations, just for the sake of getting a customer, seems like a pretty bad bargain.

Posted by: Don Wynes | Sep 28, 2005 2:32:10 PM

1. As a startup, you have nothing to lose. Once established, you have everything to lose. Settling for being corporate is simply a result of fear. (Don't rock the boat. Preserve what you have.) It's natural, but it's the kind of shift that stunts growth and robs you of the magic that made you successful in the first place.

2. Everyone has their own style and their own interests. If you're naturally dignified and conservative and you forced yourself to be more daring during the startup phase, then by all means revert to your natural style once your firm picks up momentum. However, if you're a daring and undignified kind of person and you force yourself to act dignified and conservative to "play it safe" once you're doing well, then you're cheating your clients out of a good chunk of your talent.

It's best to just be comfortable and do what you love to do. Jeans or suit, backpack or briefcase, Vespa or Mercedes... it's about what works for you.

(Okay, it's a cliche, but it's true.)

Posted by: Olivier Blanchard | Sep 28, 2005 7:20:01 PM

Ideally, it would be nice to be the same person, the same company you started out to be, but Olivier above me said exactly what was on my mind "As a startup, you have nothing to lose. Once established, you have everything to lose." Very few industries have the flexibility of having free personality as they need to appeal to the largest croud. Just my opinion.

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Posted by: 注册香港公司 | Oct 31, 2006 6:53:35 PM

This is interesting. Lots of people tell me they like my book because it's not your typical dummies book. I talk about stuff like how your workers' lack of affordable health insurance could make your SharePoint project go kablooey. It's a mix of sociology, technology, politics, and being really pissed off at my former employer. It worked. I don't know if I could ever recreate it.

Posted by: Vanessa L Williams | Nov 3, 2006 9:33:43 PM

This post reminds me of working at Electronic Arts as a tester. On my first "tour", about six months in the last half of '04, the QA department was an awesome place to work. We routinely put in 80 hours a week, but you barely noticed it because the atmosphere was still just like a startup, complete with wicked humor, a fun, casual atmosphere and dress code, and web-surfing to sites that would make most corporate system administrators' heads explode. It was a *fun* place to work. You actually looked forward to going there.

Cut to the latter half of '05, when I went back for a second tour. I don't know exactly what went down during those six months in between, but when I returned the place had gone corporate -- regimented breaks, a more "professional" atmosphere, no internet access at all for testers, etc. Tester engagement, fun, productivity, and morale were all way down.

I guess EA doesn't need my advice on how to make money or run a company, but it was sad to see such a vibrant, high-morale workplace so radically transformed, on its way to becoming a typical corporate drone hive.

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Posted by: 香港BVI公司注册登记 | Dec 3, 2006 7:02:52 PM

A corporation's "professionalism" is like the equivalent of magnolia painted walls in a house that is about to be sold. Sure it doesn't have character but when you want as much interest as possible you can't take chances on the "character" offending anyone.

Posted by: Hex | Jan 6, 2007 11:02:56 PM

"Professional" does not mean "loss of creativity or innovation". My last job was software consulting and our main clients were intellectual property lawyers. "Professional" means getting the job done no matter what it takes yet behaving appropriately. In fact, the greatest employee is someone who can think and learn fast, yet knows how to adapt his or her behaviour to the situation. That does not mean you stop innovating. We were professional yet we came up with creative ideas all the time.

Posted by: Ramesh Rajaduray | Mar 5, 2007 9:00:28 PM

It is all about adaptation. Be "professional to those external groups that value it". Be "daring", "revolutionary", etc with your internal team. I own a going on 6 year old "startup" tech consulting firm and our group understands the culture we have within our four walls may vary greatly from what our customers and potential customers see.

If you truely KNOW your customers, it is so easy to extend the culture of "revolutionism" to the outside.

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