There’s no doubt that Tony Fadell and Nest are under an immense amount of pressure right now from the media. Fast Company and Business Insider both just wrote reports on a toxic, troubled culture at Nest.
I left Nest a year ago to found b8ta with three other colleagues from Nest, but reading such reports about the company fills me with incredible sadness. I have a lot of friends that are still there and some who have left and I know that the atmosphere being portrayed in these articles isn’t how many feel about their time at Nest. It’s not how I feel. Working at Nest showed me how successful companies are designed, not just built. It changed my life.
I joined Nest when they “acqui-hired” my team at Origami Labs, a startup that I had founded in 2011. They took my entire team of six. Before joining, Nest wouldn’t reveal to us what they were working on (which ended up being Nest Protect). We assumed we were joining a company making thermostats or other energy products for the foreseeable future. I vividly remember them taking our team on a tour through their hardware engineering building and they had covered up their future products and research with purple veils.
At the time, Nest was staffed by many ex-Apple employees who were true experts in their respective fields: battery technology, chip design, supply chain, manufacturing, marketing, etc. We were extremely inspired and humbled by the collection of talent at Nest. Great leaders like Tony are magnets that attract those kinds of resources. Although we had a better deal on the table for my team, the prospect of joining such a skilled group was the opportunity of a lifetime for us. It was obvious that there was no way the company was not going to be successful, because they had designed it for success.
When we joined, the secrecy was lifted and we learned about the products under the purple veils and the Nest culture in general. The first thing to know about Nest’s culture is that it’s a family. They expect loyalty, trust, and if you want to succeed, you need to build healthy relationships with people from across different disciplines. It is not enough to be good at your job at Nest; you also need high emotional intelligence.
If you come to Nest from a different company (especially Google), that aspect may not be immediately clear. And it can lead to bad feelings if you didn’t put in the time to build those relationships and that loyalty. But it’s the only way that you can build complex products and launch them at scale as successfully as Nest does. Building and shipping hardware products requires an orchestra, not a band. And Tony is the conductor. You need clear leadership and focus, cross-functional friendships, and need to wire your brain to think more broadly than just what you’re working on.
The second thing you’re ingrained with culturally from day one is Nest as a brand. Building a phenomenal, time-tested brand requires extreme discipline, and often, a relatively small set of stewards that all customer-facing content and products must run through. Again, Tony is one of those stewards. But Nest has stewards in many other functions and levels within the company. And the output of their culture is for everyone to be one eventually.
This means that virtually nothing customer-facing makes it to production that isn’t at the quality or perfection worthy of the brand. What follows is that not everything makes it out, and sometimes you make more revisions and iterations than someone would reasonably do outside of Nest.
The dedication to the brand is one of those things that as an employee can seem onerous and taxing, but it develops an intense compassion for the end user in everyone that works there. I’m not surprised that the atmosphere might be called toxic when employees are working on things that don’t get out the door in a normal timeframe. On the flip side, it also means that you take great pride in your work when it eventually ships. You are always doing your best work. And Nest celebrates product launches internally with the best of them.
To me, doing great work is a habit, not an occasional outcome. And if you embrace Nest’s process instead of fighting it, you develop a habit for doing great work and you’re better for it.
The last thing I’ll say is about Tony, since he’s the focus of most of these articles. I was in maybe 10 meetings with him total in 18 months. So I would never characterize my time with him as “intimate.” However, I did sit within 15 feet of him and next to his meeting room for a year.
First, he’s profoundly intelligent and can talk about almost anything happening in the company with a deep understanding, especially engineering-related issues. He spends his day flipping from topic to topic. He’s also the ultimate product manager and marketer, with an acute ability to understand why something should or shouldn’t exist, how something should work, and what it should look like.
There is a tremendous amount of reverence for him at Nest. Many go into meetings with him and fear his judgement because they’ve heard this story and that story. I don’t know which are or are not true. But if you work at Nest, you have to remember the two things I mentioned above, and this third: Tony is a human, and a member of the Nest family. He’s an intense person, there is no doubt about that. But he’s a human, and your colleague, and your family member. You are working together.
When you go home and talk to your family, you lay it all out. You don’t hold back on what you think, because you know at the end of the day you’re going to be okay — usually. That’s how he sees it. In his world, all that matters is the product that you’re shipping. And his willingness to engage at that level with almost anybody means that if you’re not ready for that, you may take something personally. But if you leave your ego out of it, you realize that like you, he’s just trying to make the product better. And you will. And you’ll learn to care about the product as much as he does.
For obvious reasons, not everyone is going to get along with that style and you’re going to get stories coming out of Nest and his meetings sometimes. And I’m sure there are many people who wish they had taken a different job. I’m not one of them. Working for Nest and for Tony was a career- and life-changing experience. I did some of my best work there. I learned what great work was and how you might do it. I developed a habit for it. I learned (sometimes painfully) how to build great working relationships with my colleagues. I was exposed to new disciplines and world-class experts in many fields. I had a firsthand glimpse at what drives incredible brands. And I developed a passion for excellent products and compassion for end users from one of our industry’s greats.
Is there room for improvement at Nest? Where isn’t there room for improvement? Would I do everything the same way Nest did? Probably not. But there’s no doubt in my mind that working for Nest and Tony Fadell can be incredible, if you approach it with patience and optimism.