One of the greatest perks of working at Expensify is that you are surrounded by passionate, mature people naturally motivated to do the right thing. This works because we hire people who have three key characteristics:
- Extreme natural talent
- Long term ambition
- Deep humility
All three matter in different ways, but the third is particularly relevant here because it’s what ensures everybody has an appreciation for the limits of their knowledge — which translates into a low-drama, super collaborative environment.
Now, when people hear “collaborative environment”, they typically think about the various off-the-shelf management techniques, like Scrum, Agile, Holacracy, or whatever the pop-business gurus are selling these days. We don’t use any of those. Rather, we try to live by two main principles:
Rule #1: Get Shit Done.
This is actually broken up into two subcomponents:
At any point in time, make sure you are doing the most valuable thing you can imagine. If you aren’t, stop what you’re doing, and start doing something more valuable. This sounds obvious, but it’s a constant struggle. We all fall prey to inertia and habit, and it requires a high degree of self awareness (and reminders from your peers) to recognize when you are squandering precious time on non-precious work.
Whatever you are doing, do it in the most expeditious way possible. This doesn’t mean cutting corners — it means taking the most direct path, even if that path gets bumpy. Like #focus, it’s easy to get overly committed to a particular path and resist the realization that another, faster path exists (typically one without the bells and whistles). Similarly, it’s easy to forget that nothing is valuable until it’s in the hands of the customer: if you have 5 tasks that each take 1 day, it’s better to ship 1 per day and start getting partial value immediately, rather than waiting 5 days to ship them all at once (and missing out on the value you could have had along the way).
At Expensify, #focus and #urgency are common refrains around the office, and simple ways to remind each other that “getting shit done” isn’t as simple as locking yourself in a room and cranking out code: it’s about staying aware of the changing conditions and constantly reevaluating to find the optimal path forward.
Rule #2: Don’t Ruin It for Everyone Else
If Rule #1 is the gas pedal, Rule #2 is the brakes. And while it’s tempting to say that “Getting Shit Done” is obviously the more valuable of the two — or even that the ends justify the means — in practice it’s the deliberate decision not to move forward that makes the organization excel. Our high level bucket for this is:
It’s awkward to use the word “maturity” as it can’t help but conjure up the image of a disappointed parent giving you a stern look. But it’s important to get past that initial reaction and recognize: maturity is what binds the organization together and enables everything else to function without us all exploding into a frenzy of acrimony. Being part of a high growth startup is hard. We’re humble people, but we’re not saints, and even our high degree of humility is often tested to the breaking point.
Now, most organizations take the easy path in hiring, and compromise on all three of the values listed above. When you have less talented people you need far more of them. When they lack ambition, you need managers to ride them hard. Most damaging of all, however, is when they lack humility.
Being unambitious and untalented is bad enough, because every hire brings at best a linear increase in productivity to the company — and if that increase is the product of talent and ambition, then the less you have of those the less linear gain you bring to the company.
But if productivity increases linearly, overhead increases exponentially. This is because in your time spent producing your one widget per hour, you affect the ability of everybody around you to create their widget. And if you lack the humility to work well in teams, it’s possible to erode everybody else’s productivity so much that the net effect of adding you to the organization is actually a reduction in total productivity.
This tension between linear productivity and exponential overhead can be solved in two ways. By far the most common way is to create a ton of rules, and a deep management hierarchy. The rules are there less to achieve compliance (because people who need rules are the least likely to follow them), and more to enable faster firing decisions than could be done otherwise.
The hierarchy, however, is designed to explicitly reduce cross-team communication so as to insulate the untalented and unambitious employees in one department, from the inflated egos of another department. Hierarchy is there to replace one large pool of people who are able to affect each other exponentially, with a bunch of smaller pools that are isolated from cross contamination.
And don’t get me wrong: it works. There’s a reason that nearly every company out there turns to deep management hierarchies backed by thick rulebooks as they grow: once they start down the path of mediocre hiring, there is really no alternative.
But there is an alternative, if you have the patience and discipline to resist mediocre hires. By hiring people with exceptional natural talent and bold long term ambition, you hire people who bring a tremendous amount of linear productivity to the team. And when those people have a high degree of humility, it means they contribute the lowest amount of exponential overhead to the organization.
The combination of the two is you can push back the intersection of those two lines (where each new hire is counterproductive) as far as possible, meaning you can avoid the need to inflict a deep hierarchy on the company in the name of scale.
Which is a really long way of saying: hierarchies are explicitly designed to create, isolate, and manage a large number of “low maturity teams”, whereas we’re aiming to create one single “high maturity team” that can collaborate without barriers, at scale.
And the advantage of being in a “high maturity environment” is you don’t need a ton of rules to get the most out of people. Indeed, you only need two:
- Get shit done.
- Don’t ruin it for everyone else.