Stables and Volatiles

Stephen was a hired gun at my first start-up. His contract started a year before I arrived, but he was long gone before I walked in the door. The story goes that when Stephen started, he found a small, solid team of five engineers, a QA lead, and a project manager. They were slowly and steadily going… nowhere. After two weeks of watching the team’s slug-like pace, Stephen was fed up.

Stephen, a guy we hired as a temporary contractor to tidy up our database layer, grabbed the greenest of engineers, moved into the ping-pong room, and told the engineer, “We are not leaving this room until we can see the application actually work.”

The engineer asked, “What does ‘work’ mean?”

Stephen, “I don’t know, we’ll figure it out when we get there.”

Ten days later, a reeking ping-pong room contained three-quarters of the engineering team, none of whom had slept in the last 48 hours. The green engineer stood up and demoed the application. For the first time in the company’s history, the team could see and touch the idea. Three months later, we released 1.0.

It reads like an inspirational story. The whole team mobilizing for one last push to get the product out the door. Except Stephen didn’t mobilize the whole team, he marshaled three-quarters of it. While the folks who weren’t sleeping in the ping-pong room clapped just as loudly when they saw the product, they knew the corners Stephen had cut to get it done because they’d seen the code. They knew many features were smoke-and-mirrors placeholders, they had big questions about scale, and most of all, they knew it’d be their job to clean up the mess because they’d seen Stephen’s ilk before. They knew he was a Volatile.

The Factions

The reward for shipping 1.0 is a deep breath. Whew, we did it. In the days, weeks, and months that follow shipping 1.0, the work is equally important to your success. But you never forget the moment when you consider the product done, because you are intimately aware of the blood, sweat, and tears it took to get it there.

I’ve written a lot about shipping 1.0, but it’s only recently that I’ve been thinking about what happens after a successful 1.0. First, yes, there is someone coming to eat you, but the act of shipping 1.0 creates an internal threat as well. The birth of 1.0 initiates a split of the development team into two groups: Stables and Volatiles. Before I explain why this rift occurs, let’s understand the two groups.

Stables are engineers who:

  • Happily work with direction and appreciate that there appears to be a plan, as well as the calm predictability of a well-defined schedule.
  • Play nice with others because they value an efficiently-run team.
  • Calmly assess risk and carefully work to mitigate failure, however distant or improbable it might be.
  • Tend to generate a lot of process because they know process creates predictably and measurability.
  • Are known for their calm reliability.

Volatiles are the engineers who:

  • Prefer to define strategy rather than follow it.
  • Have issues with authority and often have legitimate arguments for anarchy.
  • Can’t conceive of failing, and seek a thrill in risk.
  • See working with others as time-consuming and onerous tasks, prefer to work in small, autonomous groups, and don’t give a shit how you feel.
  • Often don’t build particularly beautiful or stable things, but they sure do build a lot.
  • Are only reliable if it’s in their best interest.
  • Leave a trail of disruption in their wake.

Lastly and most importantly, these guys and gals hate — hate — each other. Volatiles believe Stables are fat, lazy, and bureaucratic. They believe Stables have become “The Man.” Meanwhile, Stables believe Volatiles hold nothing sacred and are doing whatever they please, company or product be damned. Bad news: everyone is right.

Because of this hate, there’s a good chance that these two factions are somehow at war in your company, and while all your leadership instincts are going to tell you to negotiate a peace treaty, you might want to encourage the war. Hold that thought while I explain where the war started.

A Stable Evolution

I’m of the opinion that many successful Stables used to be Volatiles who are recovering from the last war. Think about it like this. Go back to your successful 1.0. You’re taking your deep breath because you appear to be past the state of imminent failure, enough money is showing up, and the team is no longer working every single weekend just to keep the lights on. My question: “How’d you get there?”

Someone bled.

The birth of a successful 1.0 is a war with convention and common sense. It is built around a handful of Volatiles who believe that “We can bring this new thing into the world,” and no one believes them. It’s excruciating, and the majority of Volatiles who embark on this quest will fail, but if and when success arrives, those who survive are scarred and weary. More importantly, they are intimately aware of what it cost to get here and they want to protect it.

This is how a perfectly respectable and disruptive Volatile transforms into a Stable. They are eager to make sure the team does not return to a war-like state because, well, war sucks. These emerging Stables build process and carefully describe how things should be done because they have the scars and experience to do so. They hire more people and they become a moderate-sized, well-run engineering team. They hire people who are familiar, who have traits that remind them of themselves. Yes, they hire engineers who are predisposed to be Volatile.

Unintentionally, they plant the seeds for the next war.

See, these new Volatiles arrive and they look around and they are told, “This is a well-run machine built on the success of the first war. Shiny, isn’t it?” The Volatiles nod cautiously, but in their heads they’re thinking, “Shiny. Polished. This isn’t very exciting. I mean, it’s certainly pretty, but where is the threat? Who is coming to eat us?” The irony is that the Volatiles want exactly what created this company in the first place. The thrill of 1.0, but when they make their intentions known, the recently minted Stables show up and start yelling, _YOU THINK YOU WANT 1.0 BUT LOOK AT THESE SCARS — YOU DON’T WANT A PIECE OF THIS. IT’S WAR. WAR SUCKS._

The Volatiles nod and acquiesce, but this does not scratch their disruptive itch. They continue to believe the right thing is something risky and something new. We need to make a big bet.

This transformation of first generation Volatiles to Stables among the arrival of the second generation Volatiles is the source of an amazing amount of organizational discontent. It’s how a team that used to cohesively sit on the same floor stratifies and fractures into multiple teams on many floors where there is an emerging, unfamiliar sense of us and them. It’s the beginning of the worst kind of politics and gossip, and it’s often the source of the vile reputation managers receive for being out of touch.

The arrival and organization of the new Volatiles actively disrupts the organization. While it is dangerous work and well-intentioned people will yell at me, your job as a leader is to nurture this disruption.

Wait, What?

Once you’re successfully past 1.0, you have a choice: coast and die, or disrupt. No one in history has ever actually chosen coast and die; everyone thinks they’re choosing the path of continued disruption, but it’s a very different choice when it’s made by a Stable than by a Volatile. A Stable’s choice of disruption is within the context of the last war. They can certainly innovate, but they will attempt to do so within the box they bled to build. A second-generation Volatile will grin mischievously and remind you, “There is no box.”

Many incredibly successfully multi-billion-dollar companies fall under my definition of coast and die. They are sitting there, impressively monetizing their original excellent 1.0 for years — for decades — but there’s a smell about them. Sure, the money is still pouring in, but what have they built that is actually new? They have huge sales forces, impressive glossy ad campaigns, and legions of lawyers, but you can’t point at anything that they’ve built in the last five years where you thought, “Holy shit.” That distinct musty smell is the lack of Holy Shit, and its presence sends Volatiles running, because that’s the smell of stagnation. Volatiles want nothing to do with a group of people who no longer take risks because they believe the stagnation is death.

As a leader, you need to figure out how to invest in disruption, and this is counter-intuitive because disruption, by definition, is destructive. It breaks things that others covet.

While Apple is a good example of a company that doesn’t give a shit about wars of the past, I think Amazon is an equally solid example of a company that has chosen to invest in their Volatiles. In 2002, they introduced Amazon Web Services and we all collectively scratched our heads: A company that sells books online is getting into online services for web sites? Whatever.

Present day, and I just returned from Ireland’s amazing FunConf where I stood in a room full of developers who are intensely dependent on Amazon’s vast array of web services. My belief is that years ago, some Volatile thought, We are not a seller of books, we are builders of technology. It’s this type of Volatile thinking that has Amazon going toe to toe with Apple in an entirely different space. Who thought it’d be crazy if Amazon did a phone? Not me.

I don’t know the inner workings of Amazon, but when I see strategies that diverge wildly from conventional wisdom, I smell Volatiles at work.

Take Crazy Risks

I believe a healthy company that wants to continue to grow and invent needs to equally invest in both their Stables and their Volatiles.

Your Stables are there to remind you about reality and to define process whereby large groups of people can be coordinated to actually get work done. Your Stables bring predictability, repeatability, credibility to your execution, and you need to build a world where they can thrive.

Your Volatiles are there to remind you that nothing lasts, and that the world is full of Volatiles who consider it their mission in life to replace the inefficient, boring, and uninspired. You can’t actually build them a world because they’ll think you’re up to something Stable, so you need to create a corner of the building where they can disrupt.

These factions will war because of their vastly different perspectives. Stables will feel like they’re endlessly babysitting and cleaning up Volatiles’ messes, while Volatiles will feel like the Stables’ lack of creativity and risk acceptance is holding back the company and innovation as a whole. Their perspectives, while divergent, are essential to a healthy business. Your exhausting and hopefully never-ending job as a leader of engineers is the constant negotiation of a temporary peace treaty between the factions.

We were cleaning up the results of Stephen’s Volatile engineering coup for years, but during that clean-up we went from zero customers to 30. We went from a handful of volatile engineers to a stable company of 200, and this was partly because Stephen gave us a chance to see our platform. But our platform was never done. The boost from Stephen got us out the door, but we were forever in a state of functional incompleteness and architectural inconsistency. The second-generation Volatiles pointed this out, but the Stables assured us that better is the enemy of done.

Eventually, the second platform began. It started as a side project in a silent fit of Volatile rage. It developed over weeks into the beginnings of an actual strategy, but the rebellion started too late. One big enterprise customer dropped us loudly when it was clear we never built for the scale we were selling. Credibility crumbled, the Volatiles bolted, and we sat there in the middle of the dot-com implosion consoling ourselves that “there were macroeconomic forces outside of our control”, which is exactly what a Stable says when they’ve surrendered.