Hilarious Heresy: A Review of Jessica Powell’s "The Big Disruption"

If I had to pick a few words to describe Jessica Powell’s The Big Disruption they’d be the words “hilarious heresy.”

“Hilarious” because the book is surprisingly funny. My wife actually kept commenting on how much I was chuckling as I read the book.

“Heresy” because it’s a good way of capturing what Powell is doing in the book with all of her criticisms: she’s challenging the silicon valley gospel that tech companies are here to save the world, and given all of the attention and good will towards those companies, “heresy” feels like an appropriate label for this message.

“Heresy” is an especially appropriate label from where I sit because I’m deeply involved in startup culture. In fact, the silicon valley gospel – re-packaged via 80,000 hours – was a big reason I got into startups. Heretics like Powell should annoy me, but I see her as a kind of Galileo to the Catholic Church – whose inquisition is depicted above. She challenges some widely held and cherished beliefs and a lot of what she says is spot on.

Read on if you want a glimpse of some of the funniness and deep criticisms of the book. Along the way, I add some of my own reactions. Powell hits engineers and product managers especially hard throughout the book. As a recent engineer-turned-product-manager, I found many of her criticisms spot on and worth considering. If you’re a product manager or engineer, you have an extra reason to read on, as you may find the criticisms interesting like I did.

Caution: Spoilers ahead.

Heresy #1: Technology isn’t a Panacea

There were a couple of excellent moments in the book where Powell pokes fun at a central tenet of the Silicon Valley gospel: the idea that technology itself can solve all the world’s problems.

The first moment is an exchange between Gregor, the head of engineering at Powell’s fictional Google analogue “Anahata”, and Neils, Gregor’s arch-rival and coworker who appropriately holds the title of head of sales. Gregor invites Niels to his home to try to convince him that Anahata should build a moon colony.

Both Gregor and the CEO of Anahata (named “Bobby”) believe they can build a utopia on the moon that will ensure that the engineers at their company never want to leave to work for a competitor. Niels responds with a reasonable objection: why would Anahata succeed in building a utopia when everyone else has failed?

Gregor’s response:

“Because we have something they don’t have,” Gregor said. He pushed his chair closer, and Niels couldn’t help but lean forward. The broken wooden spindle leaned with him, pushing into his back. But he did not move to swat it away; his eyes were locked on Gregor, their faces almost touching.

“Algorithms,” Gregor whispered.

I found this hilarious. There’s irony here because algorithms are not new. We’ve always had algorithms. Now we just happen to have computers to execute them quickly. This is a big deal of course, but Powell is right here: it feels absurd to think that faster execution of algorithms are the key to utopia.

Hidden in this idea is either a reductionistic explanation of the world’s problems — an explanation that ignores the role of moral failures in explaining why our world is often a terrible place to live — or an arrogant view of our grasp of human psychology — the view that we already know everything we need to know to bend people to our will and that the only thing we needed to act on that knowledge is more computational power.

All of this reminded me of a related idea from The Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs: computer science has nothing to do with computers and is not a science.1 Abelson et. al. suggest that the reason computer science is important is that it gives us a novel medium for understanding the structure of imperative (“how to”) knowledge, but we still have to do the hard work to gain that imperative knowledge.2 Computers don’t fundamentally change that problem, which is another reason to think they aren’t the key to utopia.

Here’s another great moment that attacks the technology panacea idea:

“Progressa brings technology to poor people like Jonas,” said Sven. “They are begging for food and water, and Progressa shows up with a computer and — ”

“That is incorrect,” Jonas said. He turned toward Arsyen. “Progressa is the philanthropic branch of Anahata, designed to tackle the world’s biggest humanitarian problems.”

This little exchange is also pretty funny, and I think it’s meant to highlight the absurdity of “showing up with a computer” at a country with starving citizens and saying seriously — without any hint of self-scrutiny or nuance — “we’re doing this to tackle the world’s biggest humanitarian problems.”

As someone who is interested in the intersection of poverty, eduction, and technology, (this post is a decent example) this is an important point. It’s a point that I really started to take seriously after my failed tech education startup and reading a few of Audrey Watters’ posts over at Hack Education.

Heresy #2: Product Managers Often Suck

Product Managers are hot stuff in startup land. Some — including Powell — liken them to mini-CEOs, and apparently, some VCs only invest in companies whose founders have excelled as product managers.3 They are often paid more than engineers and are often considered crucial to success of a product.

Powell dumps on all of this, starting with the fact that Arysen, the main product manager in the story, is actually a janitor who manages to become a product manager by accident. She continues poking fun at product managers through the thoughts of an employee who is giving Arysen a tour of Anahata on his first day:

“As far as product managers went, he seemed particularly underwhelming — they’d already been walking for ten minutes and he hadn’t even tried to lecture her about anything.”

Later on, Arysen is able to keep up the charade that he’s a real product manager just by googling some buzz words and dropping them in conversations:

“No one seemed to notice anything was amiss. If anything, it seemed like product managers just asked questions that other people had to answer.”

I chuckled at a lot of this — even as a product manager. Honestly, it resonates. Many of the lectures and articles I’ve read about product management smack of arrogant bulls–t. The ideas expressed are often either obvious or dubious, and if these are the same ideas that are actually used to manage products at startups, then I think Powell’s criticisms are fair here.

I’m not saying there aren’t good product managers out there saying smart things. It just seems like there’s an awful lot of nonsense.

I think Powell wants us to think that there’s a connection between a product manager’s arrogance and a CEO’s arrogance and that arrogance is at the root of the uselessness of product managers. To push this thought, she draws parallels between product managers, CEOs, and dictators of 3rd world countries.

Arysen is a prince of a 3rd world country. His father — the former king — says the same sort of things that Bobby, Anahata’s CEO says. Examples:

At a board meeting, Bobby says:

“Women,” chuckled Bobby, shaking his head. “They’re harmless until suddenly they’re not.”

Later on, Arysen says:

All of this was Jennie’s [another product manager] fault. As [Arysen’s] father had always said, women are harmless until, suddenly, they’re not.

Eventually, Arysen returns to his country and topples another monarch and muses on what his new title should be:

“Do you not like how [“King”] sounds? I think it has a certain panache, but perhaps it could be more modern. What do you prefer? Almighty Ruler? CEO of Country?”

In the same scene, Arysen starts to repeat some of the same things he heard Bobby say while he was in Silicon Valley:

“Do not bother me with small questions. I only think big thoughts. Now, how many supply closets are there? And are we stocking them with the yellow sponges with the …

“small questions” for both Bobby and Arysen are deep criticisms of unrealistic ideas (“big thoughts”) that they don’t want to think about.

Ultimately, I think the mistake that drives the arrogance of CEOs and Product Managers alike — which can in turn drive their uselessness — is mistaking luck for skill. Kahneman talks about this in Thinking Fast and Slow (and I’ve covered this mistake here too):

In one study, the CEOs were characterized by the strategy of the companies they had led before their current appointment, as well as by management rules and procedures adopted after their appointment. CEOs do influence performance, but the effects are much smaller than a reading of the business press suggests…A correlation of .30 implies that you would find the stronger CEO leading the stronger firm in about 60% of the pairs—an improvement of a mere 10 percentage points over random guessing, hardly grist for the hero worship of CEOs we so often witness.4

I’m not saying there aren’t great CEOs and product managers out there who have a larger impact on their company’s success than the average CEO in the above study. My only point is that there are probably quite a few CEOs and product managers who mistakenly believe that their decisions played a key role in explaining the success of their products and that this leads to arrogance and sub-par product management.5

Heresy #3: Startups Often Breed Employees that are Petty and Entitled

Startup jobs are sexy and often prestigious. You might think, therefore, that the people who work at startups are “‘A’ players” and “very professional.”

What I’ve found, however, is that often my coworkers and I are petty and entitled. Powell captures this best in a hilarious exchange between engineering and sales on whether engineers should be required to wear shoes, an exchange that — appropriately — plays out over an internal digital message board:

Please, engineering colleagues, please can you wear your shoes? It is not so much to ask.

Chuck, you seem to be assuming that because your feet are disgusting, everyone else’s feet are too. Grow up. My feet are pristine. I would eat off my feet if I were more flexible. It is my right to take my feet where I will, in whatever state I wish them to be.

There should be a policy against this. Adding the HR team to this thread to clarify.

My Anahata contract says I must show up to work at a reasonable hour, perform tasks as described by my manager, and not do various illegal things like pirate software or look at porn on the job. Nowhere in my work contract does it say I am required to wear shoes. I could further build out the argument as to why your logic is ridiculous and explain why this would never legally hold up under current Anahata employee guidelines, but I have too much real work to do and I suspect your brontosaurean sales brains wouldn’t understand what I wrote anyway.

+ Legal team so they can tell us whether or not this is legal.

“I wasn’t made to wear shoes,” Jonas whimpered…

Powell singles out engineers in particular for pettiness in this passage, which — as a former engineer — doesn’t strike me as entirely unfair. I’ve definitely lamented only half-jokingly that the snacks in our kitchen have run out.

Powell nails why startups can breed entitlement and pettiness in a funny exchange about why Anahata needs to create a moon colony to retain employees:

Gregor shook his head. “It isn’t enough anymore. Free food, massages, and light-saber aerobics were revolutionary when we first started the company. But nowadays, every startup has them…Those golden days are gone. We simply can’t compete…Everyone knows it.”

“Don’t you think the company’s already done a pretty good job of building a worker’s paradise?” Niels said. “If anything, we’ve made all these engineers into self-entitled, smoothie-guzzling cult members who will never have any reason to leave. Where else could they have job titles like ‘Evangelist,’ ‘Security Warrior,’ ‘Protector of All Things…

So perks like snacks and no shoes are really often a part of the compensation of employees, and from that perspective, the complaints about the perks don’t really look as petty.

Still, I think this way of thinking about retention is unfortunate. It would be better for retention and lead to less squabbling and better performance if companies just competed for talent on salaries and performance-driven bonuses.

Why don’t large companies with lots of resources like Anahata do this? Here are two big reasons.

First, companies mistakenly believe that they come out ahead by bedazzling employees with carnival cash — benefits that are useless outside of the company.6 They think they can get the same performance and culture that’s ordinarily created by rewarding hard work with serious compensation by playing up snacks and bring your dog to work day.7

I think the pettiness we see at startups is a reason to think that this is often wrong. Imagine how much more dangerous a team could be if they weren’t distracted with the fluctuations of the quality and quantity of perks and were instead incentivized with the thing that can get us almost anything we want: cash.

Tech companies aren’t always in a position to offer cash (especially if they are early startups), but when they are, I think they’re making a mistake by putting such a large emphasis on perks.

Second, egalitarian perks are easier on management than performance-based bonuses. I think that this is largely because we still haven’t figured out the transition from a manufacturing and service-based economy to a knowledge-based economy. Understanding the performance of knowledge workers is much more difficult than service and manufacturing workers. Instead of doing that hard work, companies fall back on egalitarian perks and rough averages8 of the value employees bring.

But what the hell do I know? I’m just a product manager.


Notes


  1. I’ve written about this before here and here. [return]
  2. Abelson et. al., The Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs, xxiii. [return]
  3. Marty Cagan makes this claim in his book Inspired. [return]
  4. Daniel Kahneman, Thinking Fast and Slow, “Recipes for Success.” [return]
  5. Of course, there’s also the possiblity that many product managers aren’t making a mistake and know that they are full of shit, but have to keep up an arrogant charade anyway to justify their existence. [return]
  6. “Carnival cash” is a great phrase I stole from Erik Dietrich in Developer Hegemony. [return]
  7. Patrick Mackenzie has a great bit about this here: “There are other benefits like “free soda”, “catered lunches”, “free programming books”, etc. These are social signals more than anything else. When I say that I’m going to buy you soda, that says a specific thing about how I run my workplace, who I expect to work for me, and how I expect to treat them. (It says “I like to move the behavior of unsophisticated young engineers by making this job seem fun by buying 20 cent cans of soda, saving myself tens of thousands in compensation while simultaneously encouraging them to ruin their health.” And I like soda.)” [return]
  8. The fact that understanding performance is too hard for large companies is actually a reason Paul Graham gives for working at startups in his “How to Make Wealth” [return]