Are 10X employees working too hard?  

Some software designers and engineers are much more productive than others. But it isn’t only a marginal 10% difference. Some people are 10X better than others, and some argue the difference can be 100X.

Now a very simple question: why do we make 10X people work full time? There is a culture in the tech community that you need to be completely dedicated to your company. Dedication is often a filter for recruiting. I don’t disagree that this is great for the company. But what’s good for people? What if they want to start a family? Or get back into making music? Or something else that doesn’t involve 60 hours a week in the company’s office?

When you look at it from this perspective, tech companies treat the most talented people really poorly. We have an industrial era mindset about tracking hourly input even while admitting some people can be 10X or 100X more productive than others.

The reason companies do this is because they can. Any given person will get more done if they work longer hours. A company’s expectations shift to expect more from better people, which is essentially a punishment for being better. [1]

For some people, working a lot is the correct balance. If you’re a summer intern, for example, there is a limited time to absorb knowledge and culture. You should probably take advantage of it by working all the time.

I’m in the position of knowing many people who got wealthy as founders and early startup employees. They are often the most talented people I know. How they spend their time is telling, because they don’t really work for the money. A few do grind at a new gig, but most I know travel a lot, dabble in projects they find interesting, or start a family. Freed of financial constraints, it’s obvious there are many reasons not to work full time. But why should this option be open only to startup millionaires?

What about contracting? You can just pick the number of hours you want, right? Sure, but it isn’t ideal because the overhead of finding gigs is high. Plus you often don’t get stock. You also don’t get influence within a company. Contractors often aren’t given the chance to make important decisions because they aren’t committed to the long term.

I think there is a better way:

To do this, companies need to be good at filtering when recruiting and conscientious about how they manage talent.

Your interview process should be centered on getting exceptionally capable people that fit your culture. Great people want to be around great people, so the feedback loop around hiring, both positive and negative, is enormous. It takes confidence in your company’s filters to decide on being more flexible. You could even use this as a rubric for judging candidates: are you eager for the hire even if you only get half time?

Reviewing people after they join is equally important but is more nuanced. Do you only decide to be more flexible after someone has proven their worth? It could be that an employee’s push to work part time is just the first step out the door. What about others that are working longer with worse output? They could resent the flexibility. Some companies run late, and this time is used to build rapport even if real work doesn’t get done. Is this glue essential for good teams or does it mean that even companies that declare openness to flexibility de facto aren’t? Judging an employee’s fit with a team isn’t the same as judging their output, but obviously both matter.

Judging output is much harder than judging inputs. Measuring commits or hours in the office is easy. Not all tasks are created equal, so counting them doesn’t quite work. Sometimes the most important work is not glamorous or user facing. Good engineering teams value such contributions. If you want to measure output, you’ll need to review each employee broadly and deeply.

I am hiring engineers at my new startup, YesGraph, but this post isn’t for recruiting per se. We’ve certainly incorporated these ideas into our culture, especially in judging based on output and thinking strategically about what we work on. And there is no better way to make others understand an idea than to live it: I have dinner with my family every day.

But beyond YesGraph, I’d like to hear what others think, especially those that run startups and larger tech companies. Is there something I’m missing? Have you tried this with some people, and if so, how has it worked out?

And what do parents think? As a community, tech offers part time contracting and full time work for real employees [2]. Why don’t we make flexible time another standard? Benefits, proportional stock & salary, meaningful influence within the company, and no question that you can pick up your kids from school every day. Or beyond parenting, maybe you love your garden, your music, your open source project, your marathon training.

Considering how hard it is finding great people, I’d like to see more people seek this kind of balance.

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[1] The other side is that the best people love what they do. They want to work hard. It is hard to say how much is culture imposed by the uniformity on the company’s side.

[2] This is what is most commonly the case at tech companies. But kudos to the folks at Bump, where my wife works around 32 hours per week. She is the most productive designer I know, so it is fitting.

 
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