The dinner party metaphor

What it’s like being at a company as it scales its workforce from dozens to thousands.

When you start it’s a start-up. The number of employees has just crested from two digits to three. Then those three digits become four. New people arrive. Lots of them. People you love leave. Cultures morph and collide. You move desks 26 times.

It’s quite an experience, witnessing a company come of age.

It’s like being invited to a dinner party.

Not knowing what to expect and having no other plans, you show up bottle of wine in hand. Ding-dong.

Inside is a room full of interesting people, some of whom you already know, others you get to know quickly. You all fit around the table and after a few hours of eating and drinking, you feel like you really know all of these people. And you realize: this is the best dinner party you’ve ever been to.

How lucky, you think, that I got this invitation, that I gave my Saturday night to this. You have a second piece of cake.

Then the doorbell rings. “Just a few of my friends,” says your host who told them to stop by for dessert. A handful of new faces appear in the room. Drinks are poured, handshakes exchanged. You put your dinner conversations on hold and make a point of trying to remember the new names.

There’s not enough room at the table anymore, even with the kitchen stools pulled up alongside it. So you all get up and stand comfortably in the kitchen, mingling and pouring more wine, mixing more drinks. How perfect, you think, a little party in the works!

The doorbell rings again. Several of your host’s neighbors arrive. You help to push the dining table aside and stack dinner’s dishes into the sink. Which reminds you, you’d like to find the folks you were sitting next to so you can finish that conversation you’d been having over your last bites of cake.

But they’re across the room talking to someone you haven’t met yet and you don’t want to interrupt. The room feels warmer now. You check your watch.

This time the doorbell doesn’t ring. People simply appear in the hallway, whooping hellos and brandishing six-packs. The party is growing and your host is out of glassware.

You look around and realize there are more people here now whom you don’t know than you do. But still, you think to yourself, what a wonderful night, so many great new friends.

This glow carries you through the half-dozen “Now how do you know the host?” conversations, but you find yourself fatigued when you realize there’s no more wine.

“Move over, keg comin’ through!” you hear a fellow shout from across the kitchen amid hoots and hollers. Plastic cups circulate pumped full of beer. You raise your voice in order to hold an audible conversation over the music, then stop and simply look around.

Here and there are familiar faces, the folks you sat around that table with at dinnertime. They feel like old friends to you now; little life rafts in the sea of this growing party. You make eye contact with one and tilt your cups to each other across the room. “I’m leaving,” they mouth to you with a wave. “Let’s hang out again soon!” you shout as they are swept through the crowd to the door.

It’s getting late by now, and the night has grown wilder. Someone asks you to man the keg, pumping and pouring for the crowd around you. You happily oblige, but suddenly feel overdressed in your nice shirt; beer has been spilled on your shoe. Was it really this same night, you wonder, that you walked into that little dinner party? For a moment you ponder how you ended up here. It’s fun, you admit to yourself. Quite a lot of fun. This is a party you’ll all talk about for weeks.

But it’s been a long one already, and you’re tipsy and tired.

Your host is nowhere to be found so you quietly find your coat, dust it off, and decide to head out, ready for the quiet walk home. You smile to yourself as the door clicks behind you, thinking: wow, what a crazy wonderful night.

People who’ve witnessed this kind of evolution at any company often say on their way out that a place has been soured by growth or that, god forbid, “the culture changed.” But changes are inevitable as anything grows, there’s nothing good or bad about it. It just is. It’s just a different kind of party, created by the people who are there.

So as I left my job three weeks ago at Twitter, a company I’d watched grow in many big and small ways, it felt like this. Like leaving a party while you’re still having fun, heading out with good memories and energy for tomorrow.

And all I could think as the door closed behind me was: wow, what a crazy wonderful night.

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