A Philosopher’s Approach to Building Great Teams

In college, I was exposed to a philosophical construct called the “Original Position” created by the 20th-century philosopher John Rawls. The Original Position is a thought exercise, whereby we assume a blank-slate society and are tasked with developing a system of rules, values, and norms. Our new society could reward athleticism, productivity, or kindness, it could consolidate wealth with a small number of people, distribute the wealth evenly, or by whatever we consider meritorious. No matter the rules we devise, the thought exercise further stipulates that we wear a “veil of ignorance”. By pure luck or misfortune each of us could find ourselves representative of any one of society’s stations; low caste or high, naturally athletic or weak, beautiful or ugly, slow, average, or eminently intellectual. The exercise forces you to think about the justness and fairness of the rules we create in a society.

As the first engineer at Greenhouse, and later the head of the engineering organization, I was given a blank slate: a team which did not yet exist.

It struck me that I had found myself in a situation not unlike Rawls’ Original Position. I would be creating a new society. So, I started the thought exercise. What does a fair compensation system look like? What behaviors should be valued? What behaviors are unacceptable? What shape will my new society take?

A few weeks ago, I was given the opportunity to speak at the Firstmark Capital CTO Summit, and shared a vision of the Utopian work environment for software engineers that I’d come up with:

By no means comprehensive, this list of desires served as the foundation for how I would think about the rules, values, and norms that I would hope to cultivate in my new team as it grew from nothing to what is now a team of 60 engineers. The exercise helped me to be intentional in defining the core value system for the team I would build. Now, five years on, I am happy to report that this exercise has yielded a close approximation of the developer Utopia I’d imagined years before: a team of engaged, diligent, ever-improving, and pragmatic engineers who work everyday to make things better for our customers and for each other.

Starting from a blank slate, what shape will your society take?