Why liberal arts education matters: the story of a Drucker (mis-)quote

When I did the Pando Monthly interview last week, I was asked to talk about the one thing I believe that almost no one else believes. I said that a liberal arts education is as important, or even more important, than a math and science education (here’s the clip).

Some people thought that I was taking a shot at math and science, but not at all. I just think that being successful in a modern society requires a broader understanding of humanity and people, and the liberal arts and humanities are important ingredients (Before the interview, Sarah Lacy and I talked about how you could learn everything you need to know about personal relationships in failing startups by reading Shakespeare’s King Lear). There wasn’t much time left in the interview, and my job was to give a pithy answer, but a number of people have asked me later why a liberal arts education matters to a CEO. I had an experience this week that illustrates why in a small but important way.

I spend a lot of time thinking about company culture, and talking with other people about the topic. Culture is critical. In his book Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance, former IBM CEO Lou Gerstner wrote: “culture isn’t just one aspect of the game — it is the game.” As you probably know, Gerstner is credited with one of the great company turnarounds with IBM in the 1990s. One question I hear and think about often is: how do you change aspects of your culture if you’re not satisified with them? As I thought about the topic, I was reminded of a quote I’ve seen attributed to Peter Drucker:

Company cultures are like country cultures. Never try to change one. Try, instead, to work with what you’ve got.

If you search Google for the quote, you get 128,000 results. It’s a great quote. The implications of the quote are absolutely profound for anyone leading a company or a team. Does he mean you should simply accept the culture wholesale? Was Drucker suggesting that culture change was a hopeless endeavor, or was there some other context to the quote? How did he define “culture” anyway? I wanted to read the primary source material that surrounded it to understand why Drucker said it. I’ll admit I was surprised to have never come across this quote in all the Drucker I’ve read over the past few years. I set out to find the original source material.

What I learned is that it doesn’t appear Drucker ever actually wrote or said those words. I started my research by asking my Fancy Hands assistant to find the primary source for the quote. (Fancy Hands could be the most useful service EVER on the Internet, but I’ll save that for another post.) The assistant came back with this article, which attributed the quote to The Daily Drucker, a compendium of Drucker readings for each day of the year. In the article, the author writes about how he gave his nephew a copy of The Daily Drucker, and asked him later to list some of his favorite quotes, which included the culture quote. I have a Kindle copy of The Daily Drucker, and it turns out that the quote doesn’t actually appear in the book. (This made me laugh. The nephew clearly conned his uncle by not reading the book and doing a little Googling for quotes while saving the rest of his time for other pursuits.)

That aside, even if the quote had been in The Daily Drucker, it wasn’t the primary source material, so I asked the assistant to dig deeper. Awash in 128,000 meaningless Google results, she picked up the phone (gasp!) and called The Drucker Institute at Claremont Graduate University. Very quickly, she was on email with Dr. Joseph A. Maciariello, Director of Research and Academic Director of the Drucker Institute. When asked about the quote, Dr. Maciariello pointed us to a piece Drucker wrote for the Wall St. Journal on March 28, 1991 with the title: “Don’t change corporate culture: use it,” on page A14. I won’t go into the hoops we had to go through to get a copy (it is surprisingly difficult for a regular person to buy articles from the WSJ archives). I read the article. Drucker writes about “cultural change” as the latest management fad and the need to change behaviors to achieve desired results. But he said that shouldn’t be confused with changing culture. Here’s the closest I could come to the quote in the actual written text:

What these [business] needs require are changes in behavior. But “changing culture” is not going to produce them. Culture — no matter how defined — is singularly persistent. Nearly 50 years ago, Japan and Germany suffered the worst defeats in recorded history, with their values, their institutions and their culture discredited. But today’s Japan and today’s Germany are unmistakably Japanese and German in culture, no matter how different this or that behavior. In fact, changing behavior works only if it can be based on the existing “culture.”

The sentiment of the quote is roughly the same as the one that has been incorrectly attributed to Drucker 128,000 times but the power of the actual writing and ideas is in the nuance. In particular, the examples of Japan and Germany are uniquely powerful. (The rest of the piece goes much deeper on this but unfortunately it is not linkable). As I read the text, I had a moment of much clearer understanding where Drucker’s point on culture resonated in a way that the misquote simply didn’t deliver. As Gerstner wrote, matters of company culture trump just about everything else when you’re running a company, so this insight is incredibly important to the work I do on a very practical level. It explains why “Code as Craft” resonates so strongly in Etsy’s engineering culture, even though there was near-total change in how the team operated over the course of a few years. The actual text provides thoughtful, inspiring, and tangible examples (post-war Germany and Japan), whereas the misquote is negative and even defeatist (“Never try to change one” and “work with what you’ve got.”)

It’s a little disturbing that so many people could misquote Drucker for so long without any of the quoters realizing it, and I’m sure this quote has been bandied about in board rooms to justify all kinds of plans. I’m certain I have engaged in the same practice with other quotes if only because it takes a lot of work to find the original context, as this experience demonstrates. Misquoting is particularly rampant on the Internet and I’m not the first to write about it by any means — see “Falser Words Were Never Spoken.” But each time we do it, we lose the opportunity to really understand what the person being quoted was really trying to say. We lose the deeper lessons of the text and only get the relative emptiness of a pithy headline that may have removed the insight of the original author. Taking a critical stance on that quote and having the tools to dive down into the primary source material took me from simply having a snappy out-of-context quote to a much deeper insight on a critically important subject.

When I got the first email from my Fancy Hands assistant pointing to the reference to The Daily Drucker, I wasn’t satisfied. I remembered how my professors emphasized the importance of correctly citing primary source material, and I became a pro at using the library and information sources in general. I learned how to look deeper into the text and ask the right questions to really get to the heart of an idea. I ended up with more questions, but much better and more informed ones. These are all skills I learned from my liberal arts education, and they are essential to the work I do every day. That’s the point I was trying to make.

Side note: Two blog posts in a few days? Having a kid has rearranged my schedule and my commitments so thoroughly that I’ve found a little time for writing. I hope to be writing more.

Interview at Pando Monthly in NYC

This Pando Monthly interview last week in NYC is easily the longest recorded interview I’ve ever done (one hour 45 minutes) and covers a wide variety of topics: my early days at Etsy, how we think about the IPO question, the importance of a liberal arts education, my first post-college job at Pizza Hut, my Southern roots, and Etsy’s new CFO Kristina Salen. I really enjoyed the interview. Sarah Lacy knows her stuff.

If you’re interested in the IPO question, be sure to read Etsy board member Fred Wilson’s post “The Third Way.”

I’m hiring an executive assistant

Thank you to all the applicants! This position has been filled!

I’m hiring a new executive assistant to work with me at Etsy. All the details on how to apply are below.  I thought blogging about the role rather than posting a generic job listing might produce the best results. First, why is this position open? My current assistant Jen McKaig has been promoted to an awesome new role on our Values & Impact team, which is responsible for our B Corp work, among other things. Jen was instrumental in Etsy becoming a Certified B Corp and helped make the B Corp Hack Day a success (as covered by HBR), so I am excited to see her move on to this important work full-time but now I need a replacement. (Side note: earlier in my career, I thought having an executive assistant was a bit vain, but now I know that most companies would fall apart without them. Be very kind to them.)

A detailed description of the role is below, including a special note from Jen about what it’s like to do the job and work with me. It’s an awesome, demanding, and super-fun job.

The details:

—-
As the Executive Assistant to the CEO at Etsy in Brooklyn, you are my right-hand person. Being a CEO is an awesome but also demanding job and the Executive Assistant job is no different. Some of the most demanding days start very early and end very late, so keeping things running smoothly is key, and the cost of any misfires is high. Etsy is a fast-growing 400+ person company that requires all kinds of coordination on all fronts to keep the ship running smoothly.

Here is what you will be doing:

  • My schedule has been called “crazy,” but there’s a lot to do and not a lot of time to do it. I will need you to make sure it all works and that my optimism doesn’t make me believe the impossible, i.e. that I can get from Brooklyn to uptown Manhattan in 5 minutes.
  • You will keep my calendar in order when sometimes the time slots move so fast it feels more like a video game than a calendar.
  • Organize travel and make sure all aspects of trips work seamlessly from start to finish. You know I like window seats and like to stay near mass transit when I can.
  • Help me keep the broad range of personalities I work with every day at Etsy happy and engaged: artists, makers, investors, other executives, the Etsy executive team, and board members
  • Schedule board and investor meetings amongst some of the busiest people in the world, then make them seamless technically, logistically, and culinarily
  • I generally do the bulk of presentations and reports myself but the more you can help here, the better.
  • In general, make the Etsy team as productive and happy as possible! I work for them, so you work for them, too.

Etsy is an inspiring place, without a doubt, and being my assistant has its perks. You will know more about what is going on in the company than almost anyone, plus there are plenty of fun tasks to be done. On any given day, you might be:

  • organizing a board meeting and retreat in Berlin
  • pulling together a meeting with people who are literally changing the world
  • providing art direction for a company talent show, all while making sure you have good beer and that the kegs are tapped correctly and on time
  • working with a group of craftspeople and carpenters to build out elaborate new meeting spaces brimming with Etsy goodness
  • editing scripts and helping write the company’s April Fools Joke (see Etsy Acquires Portland)

You are:

  • Professional. Etsy is a fun place, but also a serious business with a lot of moving parts. You know how to have lots of balls in the air that can’t be dropped. You’ve been an executive assistant before in a similar environment.
  • Unflappable. Crazy things happen. You should be able to pause and laugh at them for a brief second before quickly taking action to make crazy problems disappear seamlessly.
  • Passionate about Etsy. To be successful at Etsy you have to believe in what we are doing.

I asked my current assistant Jen to write a bit about what it’s like working with me. I’ll let Jen take it from here:

Even as I write this with the nervous excitement of just being promoted, I feel sentimental and sad to be passing on the torch. Chad is an outstanding manager/teacher/captain and you are a lucky individual if you get this position. That being said, let me give it to you straight — this job is important. I like to think of it as a body guard position, and the bodies you’re guarding are Chad’s time and the company momentum. There are hundreds of people, both internally and externally, who will want Chad’s time. It is your job to know what is important. You must be able to negotiate or counter requests with a firm respectful decisiveness. This is not hard (most of the time). You will be working with amazing people. You must also know how to prioritize both your time and Chad’s time, and then re-prioritize, because things will start changing from the minute you wake up in the morning.

This is an exciting role because you get to work with EVERYONE! Oh yeah, being a people person is definitely a prerequisite. There are hundreds of details to keep track of, from fun restaurants for the board dinners to the latest video conferencing software. While all of this is going on, guarding what makes Etsy special is vital. In our company values, we state that we believe fun should be part of everything we do. It turns out that fun takes planning and dedication, you should be mindful of this. The last thing I will say is this, you must know that when something looks like it can’t be done there is always a way, and it usually involves using your clever innovative co-workers.

Thanks, Jen! Remember, details to apply are above and you can start immediately.

LBJ on the use of power

The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Robert Caro’s five-part (though the fifth has yet to be written) biography of LBJ, is an incredible chronicle of a truly complex leader, one who clearly cheated all along the way to the presidency but also showed incredible leadership in passing landmark civil rights legislation.

This passage from Caro’s fourth volume (The Passage of Power) shows one of LBJ’s more noble and inspiring moments, just four days after he assumed the presidency after the JFK assassination in Dallas. It says a lot about what it means to truly lead when the road is treacherous.

. . . although the cliché says that power always corrupts, what is seldom said, but what is equally true, is that power always reveals. When a man is climbing, trying to persuade others to give him power, concealment is necessary: to hide traits that might make others reluctant to give him power, to hide also what he wants to do with that power; if men recognized the traits or realized the aims, they might refuse to give him what he wants. But as a man obtains more power, camouflage is less necessary. The curtain begins to rise. The revealing begins. When Lyndon Johnson had accumulated enough power to do something — a small something — for civil rights in the Senate, he had done it, inadequate though it may have been. Now, suddenly, he had a lot more power, and it didn’t take him long to reveal at least part of what he wanted to do with it. On the evening of November 26, the advisers gathered around the dining room table in his home to draft the speech he was to deliver the following day to a joint session of Congress were arguing about the amount of emphasis to be given to civil rights in that speech, his first major address as President. As Johnson sat silently listening, most of these advisers were warning that he must not emphasize the subject because it would antagonize the southerners who controlled Congress, and whose support he would need for the rest of his presidency — and because a civil rights bill had no chance of passage anyway. And then, in the early hours of the morning, as one of those advisers recalls, “one of the wise, practical people around the table” told him to his face that a President shouldn’t spend his time and power on lost causes, no matter how worthy those causes might be.

“Well, what the hell’s the presidency for?” Lyndon Johnson replied.

The next day, Johnson went out and said to Congress, “No memorial oration or eulogy could more eloquently honor President Kennedy’s memory than the earliest possible passage of the civil rights bill for which he fought so long.” After a lot of wrangling, the Civil Rights Act was passed and enacted on July 2, 1964 — but it may never have happened or happened much later had LBJ listened to “one of the wise, practical people around the table.”

Source: Caro, Robert A. The Passage of Power (The Years of Lyndon Johnson) (Kindle Locations 194-201).

Thanks, Dad

The past year has undoubtedly been one of the most deeply interesting years of my life. Being a first-time CEO and turning 40 (just on Friday) have been two major events in the past year, and throughout it all, I’ve been thinking a lot about my dad’s incredible influence on my life. As I was thinking about what to do for Father’s Day for my dad, I wanted to write down what I’m thankful for, because it’s something I think about a lot in my daily life but have never really written down. These are the things that you shouldn’t keep to yourself, so here are some reflections on my dad. I’m writing it publicly because I hope it encourages anyone reading this to show their appreciation for their fathers more often than I have.

Aside from being a father, my dad is a civil engineer and has been the county engineer for my home county (Pitt County, NC) for as long as I can remember. Before that, he ran his own engineering and land surveying business for many years, so he understands both business and government. He worked his way through engineering school at NC State and it took seven years because he kept running out of money, so he would work for a while and save money, then go back (if I remember correctly, he did everything from tobacco farming to being a short-order cook to selling cookware door-to-door). I wasn’t born yet when all of this was going on, but I know from my time with my dad that no one is more determined than he is, and no one will work harder than he does to achieve a goal. He’s not flashy about it and he literally never complains, but underneath that quiet demeanor is a bulldog who will blow through obstacles, over and over again. He’s a nice guy, but anyone who mistakes that for softness or lack of determination will be surprised, and in a big way.

In his work life (from what I can tell mostly from the outside), he approaches things with a lot of practicality, always seems to find win-win situations, and is incredibly solutions-oriented. That’s good and all, but the one thing that stands out from my childhood and even now when I visit home is just how much affection people have for my father. We can’t go anywhere without someone coming up to him with a big smile, always glad to see him and always with a story for me of something nice he has done for them. In his professional work, his work with the church, and in his day-to-day life, he is extremely generous and thoughtful. People love my dad in a way that is really remarkable and hard to describe in words, but if you know him, you totally understand why.

My dad is a doer, through and through. He gets things done and I think about the way he does it in everything I try to do. In a talk I gave in Sydney recently about courage, I made a reference to Teddy Roosevelt’s “In the Arena” speech. Here’s a key excerpt:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

When you read this, it’s easy to think of TR’s speech in the context of grand political figures and epic battles, but when I read it I don’t think of it that way. I think about my dad and how it reinforces something that my dad consistently taught me in word and deed, something I think about every single day: when a hard job needs to get done, you’re always going to have people who criticize how you’re doing it, but the important thing is getting the job done. You should always be on the side of getting a job done, not just talking about how it should be done or passively criticizing the people doing the work. That just doesn’t help move things along (not to mention it’s just plain annoying.) Pick up the shovel and dig. If you’re a leader, show how to dig with the shovel in hand. Not only does this help get the job done, it builds loyalty, trust, and greater capabilities in people. I learned that from my dad. He always does what he says he’s going to do. It’s a high standard that I aspire to in my daily life.

My dad recently won a national award from NISH (an organization that helps create employment opportunities for people with significant disabilities) that shows so many key aspects of his personality that make him a great father and overall person. I found a press release in an MS Word document but decided to post it on my blog to make sure I never lost it. Here’s the gist:

“Phil Dickerson may be known locally for his engineering expertise and dedication to effective County Government, but few citizens are aware of the impact his soft spoken words and energetic deeds have had on the lives of people with significant disabilities,” said Bob Jones, ECVC President [ECVC is a a non-profit with a social mission “to help people with disabilities attain a higher quality of life through achievement of their vocational goals.”] “Repeatedly over the years, he has acted in the best interests of the county while also helping to create jobs for people with disabilities. He is deserving of this award because of the longevity and consistency of his advocacy for the employment of people with disabilities throughout Pitt County.”

Thanks to Dickerson’s involvement, ECVC’s custodial, recycling, and prevocational operations provide 51 full-time and 29 part-time jobs for people with disabilities. While ECVC has benefited directly via a county contract to process 48 million pounds of materials annually, the benefits of the ECVC and Pitt County partnership work both ways. ECVC’s recycling operation produced approximately $600,000 in cost savings last year for the county.

“Phil Dickerson is a remarkable advocate for both Pitt County government and people with disabilities who are striving for the independence and respect they earn from employment,” said Bob Chamberlin, President and CEO of NISH. “It is the commitment and support of community leaders such as Phil that are so essential to the success of the AbilityOne Program and its mission to provide meaningful employment opportunities for people with disabilities.”

There was also a presentation at the local county commissioner’s meeting, and one sentence in the minutes of the meeting (PDF) in which the presenter of the award described my dad says a lot about him: “Mr. Dickerson not only designed the system, he wore coveralls and work gloves while helping with the manual labor needed to construct the system.” That is how he operates, and part of what makes him a great man, as a work colleague, a member of the community, and as a father.

The award and the program behind it also shows his thoughtfulness about people and doing good in the world, all while making sure the numbers add up. When you look at the award, he did a set of truly innovative things in such combination that it is almost startling when you look at it:

  • created 80 full and part-time jobs for disabled people
  • saved $600K annually for local taxpayers
  • delivered a recycling program where the county has consistently been number 1, 2 or 3 in volume of waste per capita recycled in North Carolina for ten years

So he built a program that both did good for the community *and* delivered stellar bottom-line results that anyone would be happy with completely independent of the social good. (It’s this kind of example that really inspired me in working to help Etsy become a Certified B Corp, which I talk about here). This didn’t happen in San Francisco, Seattle, New York, or Portland. It happened in Greenville, NC and my dad made it happen (along with many others he carefully thanked, as the meeting minutes show). Again, a high standard to aspire to.

Throughout my childhood, I helped my dad on many things, and we were never without work to do. I wrote about my dad and how he taught me about business in my note to the Etsy community last August:

As a kid growing up in North Carolina, my older brother and I ran a very successful lawn care business, often working six days a week in the thick North Carolina heat. (Sunday was for church. We mowed the church lawn for free, so even on our day of rest, we knew that 100 of our fellow church-goers would be critiquing our work.)

My dad didn’t just give us the equipment to start and run our business. He explained the basic principles of business to us when we started out, loaned us the money to buy our lawn mowers and operate the business, and made us pay the money back from our earnings — with market-rate interest! We carefully saved our summer money because we knew my dad was expecting payments throughout the winter when the grass didn’t grow and we had no business. Those were good life lessons, and I can’t thank my father enough for that experience. (Thanks, Dad.)

We were expected to earn our keep, and throughout all of it, my dad always told me that he was going to make sure that my education was paid for. My dad was a licensed land surveyor and we surveyed vast quantities of land together on weekends when I was in high school, literally chopping through woods with machetes and fording streams, stepping on snakes and encountering all sorts of other wildlife in the process. I complained frequently and my dad mostly (and rightfully) ignored my complaints, gently reminding me that we were making money to send me to school. He absolutely delivered on that promise, sending me to an expensive private university even though our family didn’t have a lot of money. While we were out there surveying, my dad even made sure to teach me some trigonometry despite my complaining, which made my later trig classes make total sense (while others were staring at shapes on paper, I was envisioning plots of land!) He was a patient teacher, despite the fact that I often didn’t deserve the patience.

I could go on and on because my dad has done so much for me it is incalculable. Suffice it to say that my dad is a remarkable man and an inspiration to me, and I appreciate everything he has done for me in my life. Thanks, Dad.

Continuous Deployment and Basketball

Anyone who knows me well knows that I love basketball and I love documentaries, so basketball documentaries are the best. Today, I watched one from ESPN’s excellent 30 for 30 series, “The Guru of Go,” produced by Oscar-winning director Bill Couturié. Here’s the synopsis:

By the mid-1980s Paul Westhead had worn out his welcome in the NBA. The best offer he could find came from an obscure small college with little history of basketball. In the same city where he had won an NBA championship with Magic and Kareem, Westhead was determined to perfect his non-stop run-and-gun offensive system at Loyola Marymount. His shoot-first offense appeared doomed to fail until Hank Gathers and Bo Kimble, two talented players from Westhead’s hometown of Philadelphia, arrived gift-wrapped at his doorstep. With Gathers and Kimble leading a record scoring charge, Westhead’s system suddenly dazzled the world of college basketball and turned conventional thinking on its head. . . .

Wessthead (who was also a Shakespeare scholar in addition to a basketball head coach) built a system that he called simply “The System.” It’s a beautifully-told story (with deep tragedy), and highly recommended (you can buy it on iTunes). What struck me about “The System” that Westhead created was how similar the language could be to how we at Etsy and others talk about our own system of continuous deployment and “The Etsy Way.” In one segment (starting at 17:47 in the iTunes video), the coach and his players talk about how their seemingly chaotic run-and-gun system (disparagingly called “roller derby in shorts” by ESPN announcer Dick Vitale) was actually quite well-thought-out:

A lot of people say, well, that wasn’t basketball, that was like street ball. Well, it might be street ball to you, but to us, it was orchestrated. (Paul Westhead, coach)

It looked like absolute chaos (Tom Peabody, player)

. . . but it’s very much a structured way to play. (Bo Kimball, player)

The “some people think it’s crazy but this is actually carefully thought out” attitude resonated with me, and reminded of discussions I’ve had about the structured chaos of Etsy’s deployment process, which I detailed in my Optimizing for Developer Happiness talk from Railsconf last year (see the bit about the “push train” starting at 17:58 in this video).

Like I’ve learned at Etsy, talent and culture mattered most in “The System,” too. Without that a great system doesn’t work — see this from the director’s personal statement about the film:
Paul’s system was magic (and big fun to watch) – if you had the right players. Without them, the system looked like crap.

Since Westhead is also a Shakespeare scholar, Shakespeare quotes are sprinkled throughout the film. At one point, Westhead says, “People ask me my favorite Shakespeare quote. It’s a simple one-liner about basketball and maybe your life, from Hamlet: ‘The Readiness is All.'” In Westhead’s system, players were expected to push the ball down the court and be ready to shoot quickly. Readiness is a key aspect of continuous deployment, too. In slide 43 of my talk at SXSW about Continuous Deployment at Etsy, I quote Etsy engineer Lacy Rhoades: “Not being in a state to deploy is a matter of liability. It’s like having the only fire exit blocked. You ignore it at everyone’s peril.” Yes, readiness is all.

When I see connections between basketball, leadership, technology, and Shakespeare, I just can’t resist writing them down. Thanks for indulging me.

Here’s a clip from the film:

The 20 Percent Doctrine

In March of 2010, I got an email from Ryan Tate saying he was writing a book about skunkworks and experimental projects inside large companies, and he wanted to talk to me about Yahoo! Hack Day. Over the next year and a half, I did periodic interviews with Ryan. Ryan eventually asked me to write the foreword for the book. By then it had a title: The 20% Doctrine: How Tinkering, Goofing Off, and Breaking the Rules at Work Drive Success in Business. I loved the topic so much, I agreed to write it during the holiday season (a busy time at Etsy!) I’m happy with how it turned out.20% Doctrine

The book shipped yesterday, and Ryan’s chapter on Hack Day captures the beautifully chaotic spirit of Hack Day better than anything else I’ve read. (The big surprise when I read the chapter for the first time yesterday was the description of me as a “laid-back, freedom-loving, rabble-rousing Yahoo programmer, a sort of cross between Bill Gates and cult movie character Jeff ‘The Dude’ Lebowski.” I’m not that smart or that cool but it definitely made me laugh!)

Below is a copy of the foreword — a big thanks to Ryan for letting me write it, and to all the Yahoo! hackers and leaders who helped make it all possible. Years later, I am still inspired by the spirit we captured with Yahoo! Hack Day, and feel really honored that I played a role in it. I hope you enjoy the foreword, and the whole book.


On December 12, 2005, the phone at my desk rang. It was the Yahoo! HR department. The phone at my desk almost never rang, so this was a bit of a surprise. I had just helped put together something really awesome, though, so I smiled and braced myself for a hearty congratulations.

The Friday before, I had organized the first internal Hack Day at Yahoo! with the help of a loosely-organized band of people around the company. The “hack” designation for the day was a tip of the hat to hacker culture, but also a nod to the fact that we were trying to fix a system that didn’t work particularly well. The idea was really simple: all the engineers in our division were given the day off to build anything they wanted to build. The only rules were to build something in 24 hours and then show it at the end of the period. The basic structure of the event itself was inspired by what we had seen at small startups, but no one had attempted such an event at a large scale at an established company.

The first Yahoo! Hack Day was clearly a success. In a company that was struggling to innovate, about seventy prototypes appeared out of nowhere in a single 24-hour period and they were presented in a joyfully enthusiastic environment where people whooped and yelled and cheered. Sleep-deprived, t-shirt-clad developers stayed late at work on a Friday night to show prototypes they had built for no other reason than they wanted to build something. In his seminal book about open source software, The Cathedral and the Bazaar, Eric Raymond wrote: “Every good work of software starts by scratching a developer’s personal itch.” There clearly had been a lot of developer itching around Yahoo! but it took Hack Day to let them issue a collective cathartic scratch.

But back to that call from HR. I grabbed the phone, prepared to be gracious, then the HR person on the other end told me we needed to take down one of the hacks, a hack by Cal Henderson that created an API to our company directory (available on Yahoo’s intranet, known as “Backyard”) and built a hot-or-not-style “Backyard War” app on top of it. No one was ever really sure what these wars were about, but it was viscerally fun to place random co-workers in battle with each other over unknown stakes. The impromptu judging committee I had put together had given Cal a trophy for his work.

The HR person who called me had made a critical error in reasoning. While I had organized Hack Day, I by no means had any actual control over the event itself or any of the participants. I had designed it that way. There were no sign-ups in advance, no proscribed projects or areas of focus, and no central servers where the projects lived. I couldn’t have taken Backyard War down if I had a gun to my head. In the end, I think HR may have eventually gotten to Cal, but it didn’t matter. At future Hack Days, there was always a feeling of danger and although no one ever really said it, there was an ongoing secret competition to see who would get the call from HR this time. When you’re trying to get things done and change a system, expect to upset a few people along the way.

With that first event, the die was cast and the completely improvised format from that first Hack Day became somewhat of a standard. At that first Hack Day, I didn’t expect seventy presentations (remember, I had no idea who was presenting until they got started). I had originally planned to give each team 5-10 minutes to present, but with 70 hacks, I called an audible — each presentation would be two minutes or less. Years later, I found myself in an elevator at the site of a hack day and heard one hacker explaining the rules to another, “Dude, demos are always two minutes. It’s a rule.” I chuckled to myself that these “rules” had become so solidified over time.

After that, we did Hack Days all over the world, on three continents. We continued doing internal ones for employees and did our first open one for the public nine months after the very first internal one. The basic “rules” remained. People built huge numbers of prototypes to solve a wide range of problems, and the only thing that really changed from place to place was the food. We had pizza in California, samosas in Bangalore, and bad English pizza in London.

In London, we did a joint hack day with the BBC and held it at Alexandra Palace. Just after the event started, lightning struck and the power went out, triggering a fire suppression system that opened up large sections of the roof, causing indoor rain. Hackers pulled out umbrellas and simply started drawing on paper until the power came back. Once the creative spirit reaches liftoff, an unexpected indoor rainstorm just isn’t enough to stop it.

Since that first Hack Day, there have been hack days at companies like IBM. GroupMe was born at the Techcrunch Disrupt Hack Day in May 2010, funded three months later, then sold for tens of millions of dollars within a year. Hack Days are being organized by government agencies to help citizens improve government. Just recently, LinkedIn organized a Hack Day to help veterans.
People ask me all the time why Hack Days work so well. The secret of Hack Day is pretty simple: doing something is the only thing that matters at a Hack Day. You can have the best idea in the world, but if you can’t put some meat on it, no one cares. When I organized the first one, Yahoo! had something internally called “Idea Factory,” a sophisticated online suggestion box to capture ideas from people around the company. Capturing ideas in such a way sounds perfectly innocuous, but such a system has a key ideological flaw: it anticipates that someone else is going to take your idea and and do something with it, relieving you of all responsibility (except, as I learned, complaining that no one had used your awesome idea yet). Hack Day solves that problem. You’re responsible for idea and execution, and your two minutes better have a demo or you’re toast.

Hack Days separate doers from talkers. In the communications around that first Hack Day, I had thrown in a “no PowerPoint” directive to protect the event from the pernicious scourge of corporate slide decks, and that became a rallying cry. There simply was no place for the dull corporate drone of bland PowerPoints. Occasionally, someone would try to present a PowerPoint without a prototype. Without fail, that person would be roundly booed and ruthlessly cut off if he didn’t step away willingly. The cultural norms of Hack Day simply did not allow for vacuous grandstanding. Stop talking and show me what you built. We’ve only got two minutes.

In this book, you will learn about many ways different organizations have tried to innovate, and you can bet they all share this: they trust that people will do awesome things when given room to do it, and they take great pains to create that room.

Happy hacking, and remember that you don’t really have to answer the phone when HR calls.