Last week was my blogging debut, and wow, what a reaction. However, I think the most interesting discussion actually occurred in the comments to the previous blog post, The Hunt for Engineers: Expensify and the surprisingly difficult challenge of finding the right people. I think the controversial statement in the previous blog was that we look for people with “a great work ethic, almost to the point that some of your friends might call you masochistic”. But what does that really mean?
Some of the commentators thought that it was some sort of codeword for working people to death. And when I mentioned we don’t discriminate by nationality (we’ll hire you regardless of visa status), the assumption was it meant we hire people who are desperate and kept in check by fear of deportation. In other words, most commentators assumed the worst interpretation of every single word because, surely, who in their right mind would work so hard as to bewilder their friends?
The answer is, obviously: people who work harder than their friends by choice. People who have so much passion and ambition that they can’t be stopped from working, and who pursue that ambition with such vigor that their friends simply cannot understand.
But all that is relative. How you interpret those statements depends on a lot of assumptions, and different assumptions lead to wildly different conclusions.
For example, some people claim startups work 70 hours/wk in an endless period of “crunch time”. Others suggest that nobody can possibly work more than 17 productive hours/wk. There are so few hard numbers to analyze that everybody works from anecdote, myth, and legend — leading to wild accusations without substantiation. So in an effort to move the discussion forward, let me bring some data to light. Behold, for the first time, the Expensify workweek:
As for how to read the chart, the X axis is weeks (since Expensify’s start), and the Y axis is hours (number of “real hours”/wk). A “real hour” is “an hour spent doing productive work” — graded by the honor system. Like any real-world dataset, there’s something for everyone, and I’m sure you can argue any conclusion you like. But the conclusion I’d like to argue is, on average, we as a team work 50 hours/wk, week after week. Often people work more, and very often people work less. But nobody has ever worked more than 70 hours/wk, and nobody puts in substantially over 50 hours for an extended period of time. This is what hard work means at Expensify, and I’m very curious to hear how it compares to your experience.
I’m sure we’re not alone, but Expensify is the only startup I know that tracks hours. (If you do, please share your data.) Unless you’re actually billing hours to clients, there might seem little reason to. But tracking hours gives two, extremely powerful benefits:
- Everybody knows, objectively, when they’re not living up to the team’s expectations, and by how much.
- Everybody knows, objectively, when they’ve gone above and beyond their obligations, and by how much.
I have no doubt that most people will latch on to the first bullet as if it’s the only one listed. Furthermore, they’ll say it’s all a tool to convince people to work harder, putting in endlessly more hours toward an insatiable corporate appetite. But as hard as it might be to believe, the main motivation behind this system was actually the second bullet: to convince people to work less.
See, as we’ve made patently clear, we look for a very unusual sort of person. The sort who has done more before joining college than most people will ever do after. People who have audacious plans for their life. and who will stop at nothing to succeed. These are over-achievers by birth; people who go home after a hard day’s work and pick up some project that’s even harder. These are people who move mountains on a daily basis, just to see what’s underneath. You might not know any of them. But they exist, we have several, and we want more.
But a problem with this sort of person is they frankly don’t know when to stop. They’ll work themselves to death one week, and then burn out the next. They’ll casually do something in an hour that’d take an average person 10, but then spend 10 hours screwing with the CSS. Without the right sort of environment, this person will not only fail to excel, but will genuinely underperform. They’ll get bored and slack, be disruptive, or tend toward outright insubordination. I’m as guilty of that as the next.
So the goal is to channel this enormously powerful but unstable force in a positive direction. And half of that is giving clear guidance. But the other half is setting very clear expectations as to how much of their time the company expects, and genuinely encouraging them to take the rest off.
I don’t want someone to work 70 hours/wk. I work nearly as hard as anyone on our team, and I know it’s incredibly hard — nearly impossible. I don’t know that I’d believe anyone who said they put in 70 productive hours in a given week. I don’t want anyone to feel they need to attempt that impossible task, or to pretend they’ve accomplished it.
But at the same time, I do want everyone to work 50 hours/wk. I’ve generally maintained at least that for years, so I know it can be done. It’s not easy — it requires sacrifice — but not nearly as much as you’d think. I’m plowing through 6 seasons of Lost, I have dinner with my wife every night, I recently got married in Italy, I spend weeks overseas every year, and I walk my amazingly cute beagle on the beach most weekends. There are 168 hours in a week; if you can’t work 50, you’re doing something wrong.
In fact, the primary purpose for all this (I’ve been doing it for over 5 years now — it only takes seconds each day) was to create an objective tool to achieve a desired work/life balance, in large part to live up to my family obligations. I want to work extremely hard, but then go home with complete confidence that I’ve done right by my startup ambitions, and can therefore relax without guilt. Setting clear goals encourages me to work the right amount, day after day, without anybody looking over my shoulder — but then to stop and do something else.
In short, I want everyone to maintain an aggressive pace, one that seriously challenges their work ethic, but one that I know from personal experience can be maintained over the long run without giving up the good things in life. I want this because this is what it takes to compete in the startup world. It’s what it takes for us to collectively achieve our individual long-term goals. It’s what we need to do to succeed in this venture and lay a strong foundation for the next.
It’s not for everyone. I expect many people will be horrified to read this post. And for those who aren’t horrified, I bet your friends are. But that’s ok, because we don’t want to hire your friends. We want to hire you.