Human Compilation Error
Today’s edition was produced in partnership with Justin Irabor. It is a half-fictional essay about startup founders and mental health. We think you’ll like this one. As always, give us feedback about the newsletter here, and please share. (Catch up on past editions here.)
Bruno Jide was 21, fresh out of school and looking to make an impression. As a result, he was an overeager, overexcited bunch of nerves; he resumed work early and closed late and always wanted to take on more work. He was only three weeks in.
It was December, 2012.
The company was close to closing up for the year and the entire team was huddled together in the largest room in the building (it had a poorly-stocked bar in the East-end, but no one ever drank from it). The room was splashed in a lazy blue pouring out of the projector overhead. The CEO was putting on his strongest act today; it was the regular talk — 2012 in review, highs and lows and plans for 2013.
Bruno was on the edge of his seat. He loved the CEO. He was learning to speak like the man, laugh like him and throw smart quips when he entered a room — just like the man. So far — and unbeknownst to him, he had only so far succeeded in making his colleagues loathe him further.
The talk was over in 25 minutes. No one said a thing. The entire house stared balefully at the CEO. He prodded, any questions?
No one said a thing. Bruno was alarmed. This was a brilliant, beautiful talk. Why is no one saying anything? In his panic, he raised his hand and asked a question, any question, to communicate his personal engagement. The CEO answered, but his heart was obviously not in it.
‘I am disappointed in every one of you,’ he said afterwards. ‘That the youngest and newest member of this team should be the most engaged. I expected better.’ He stormed out, abandoning the projector and his notes.
Bruno flopped against his seat, appalled. How could his team mates be so cold and uninspired?
In early 2014, a handful of people tuned in to watch an interview. A young, CEO, a different one from the one Bruno worked with in 2012, was on air and giving obligatory answers to template questions: what is your business model? How do you provide value? Challenges? Projections?
The man was nervous; it was obvious that he was camera-shy: he smiled a lot from one corner of his mouth, and tended to begin his statements with “uh, yeah.”
‘Let’s talk about your company culture,’ the interviewer asked.
The young CEO smiled weakly. ‘Funny you should ask that,’ he said. ‘I haven’t really given much thought to what our culture at XYZ is. On the spot, I guess I’d say the people I work with have overtime come to perform under a lot of constant pressure, and people have been known to work round the clock. Everything is measured, and if you cannot deliver, you probably will be without a job soon.’
He paused tensely, then chuckled. ‘Wow, that does sound terrible now that I think about it!’
And the interviewer laughed noncommittally.
The Atlantic, in 2014, ran an article titled ‘Tech Has a Depression Problem,’ giving an interesting anthropological viewpoint into the high-pressure life of startup founders in Silicon Valley. Since everyone in the tech space wants to be seen as ‘successful,’ a ‘thought leader’ and an inspiration to everyone else, the article explained, many founders weren’t being completely honest about their mental health.
“The notion that you can be vulnerable, the notion that you can share a weakness, those are antithetical to the great CEO archetype.”
One evening, after a particularly harrowing seven-hour stakeholders meeting, the results of which saw team members brutally cut off and people’s confidence in the entire company becoming shaken, I sat at my desk that night, too tired to go home.
The office was almost empty. The CEO was probably home.
I wrote him a private message: ‘Hey.’
He replied almost immediately: ‘Hey.’
‘Are you okay? Today must have been tough on you.’
‘LOL. No one has ever asked me that.’
And I waited five minutes before typing, ‘so…? Are you okay?’
‘Part of business,’ he responded. ‘Nothing to it, really.’
And we never spoke of that day, ever again.
I have flirted, almost wistfully, with the idea of a ‘cyborganization’, the ‘ultimate tech team’, where HR becomes effectively redundant — no one is dissatisfied, there is no need for team training because every team mate who needs to level-up in a particular skill will be self-motivated enough to look for tutors to help them catch up.
In this set up, the need for human maintenance and support is a non-issue, because humans are merely (and unfortunately) important ingredients in the truly important design: to ensure that the tech is just perfect, features are released on time, and scaling is done right when it is needed and everything is an oiled machine.
The ideal tech team, I wrote, would prune itself automatically:
Planning and troubleshooting is easier because anecdotal instances are hastily dismissed in the face of shitloads of data. Plan-to-action time gets faster and can actually be measured and optimized in real-time! Iterations are minimized, and the process of evaluating a team is easier — just download one or two things and you can easily know your star players and go to work on the team members lagging behind.
The only problem with everything I wrote is that it is utterly stupid. What’s worse, I am not in the minority of people that think — either actively or passively — like this.
In an episode of Mr Robot, where Elliot is faced with the daunting task of hacking a secure location, his allies say it is ‘impossible,’ because the system cannot be breached.
Elliot asks about the security detail, and his team mates inform him that there are five people in charge of security, to which Elliot says ‘I already see five bugs in the system.’*
He breaches the system, we find out later, by leveraging on information about the individuals that made them vulnerable.
The typical tech startup has a founder (or if you are lucky, a founder and a co-founder) running a flat hierarchy system.
Objectively, it centralizes command at one point, then disperses it uniformly along the team so that responsibility is shared strongly, team values are communicated coherently and everyone is always plugged in.
Subjectively, however, it is the perfect set-up for a CEO’s neurosis, narcissism and downright psychopathy to be dispersed rapidly down a chain. When startups like these have a ‘culture,’ it’s usually slanguage for a homogeneous collection of people acting and behaving along a narrow range of attributes that please one person only — the founder/CEO.
And along comes groupthink.
I met Bruno for the first time ever in 2015. He was older and wiser, and he could retroactively understand what had happened in that room in 2012. It was quite simple: the team had been sold dreams and incentives, but never seemed to ever cash out on the incentives. According to him, they had slowly come to realize they were being manipulated by the sheer charisma of their employer — and they started to see, to their horror, that they were stuck in a dead-end job.
It was nothing to go ‘whoop’ for at an end-of-year team review meeting.
In an employer’s market such as is the current set-up of the Nigerian tech scene, where many young people are trying to ‘break into’ the tech space, employers tend to be choosy and craft recruitment methods that may sometimes border on the ludicrous.
What is more interesting is this: it’s not a bed of roses when you eventually start working at a tech startup.
The founder faces pressure from investors, and that pressure can coalesce into unreasonable deadlines and KPIs and soon the entire ‘culture’ is a toxic one, where everybody’s putting out fires and doling out blame. The celebrated ‘fluidness’, the lack of structure, can easily become a HR disadvantage as things become even more vaguely defined with reassignments and ‘strategic realignments’.
Focus on the product is usually the call in the mist that founders tend to resort to when things get awry at the team level. As team members experience burnout and begin to get disillusioned, the founder may decide to employ the unpleasant shortcut of ‘cutting off’ the ‘bad eggs.’ This provides temporary respite, but shortly after, the hitherto ‘key players’ soon become the new ‘bad eggs’ and the circle goes again…
Debugging code is simple. Adding new features to your product is sexy. There are press releases and interviews that come with doing these things. Figuring out team dynamics, really understanding that people are people, and that you cannot ‘hack’ the process of effective team relations, that’s a thankless job.
But it is important work.
Motivational speeches get old quick, when they aren’t backed by results. Your trademark CEO’s smile might keep the public enthralled, but the people who work with you 24/7 will get tired of it and will need stronger values if they must remain committed to what is essentially your personal vision.
The tech is sexy. But what about the people?
See you next week,
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